The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

YOS tries to prepare residents for the transition by devoting their final ninety days of incarceration to job-hunting tips, resume-writing and the like. (When job applications ask about the seeker's criminal history, they are told to write "Will discuss at interview.") The program is seeking bids from private contractors to move the transition phase to a group home off-site, but right now it's done from behind bars. Decisions about placement--whether offenders will be returning to their old neighborhoods, to parents and girlfriends (and, in some cases, offspring), or be relocated somewhere across town, like Chucky Montoya--can add to the anxiety.

"We have to remind them that their first priority is to get themselves set up," says John Bongirno, the "transition specialist" for YOS. "Then they can consider bringing the family unit together. The fortunate ones have something we can work with from beginning to end--a stable family, something they buy into."

But sometimes the most stable element in a young man's life is his gang. "Gang things are the biggest hurdle," Beekmann says. "For a lot of guys, that was their support system before they went in."

So far, the Division of Community Corrections has recommended that two Phase Three youths be revoked and sent to prison--one for flashing a gun, the other for what Sagara calls "chronic noncompliant behavior related to gang activity." (Beekmann says she found a gun receipt, pagers, a baseball bat covered with gang graffiti and other evidence that the youth was still gangbanging.) For minor infractions such as missing curfew, Beekmann has put other offenders under house arrest or yanked them back into DRDC for a weekend or more.

"The two guys we sent back were not salvageable," she says. "A lot of guys are very polite when they're in the institution. But I see it slip when they hit Phase Three and start hanging around with their old friends. They lose a little respect, show attitude problems.

"Some people are going to get involved with gangs again. But if they're away from it a whole year, it's going to be a lot easier for them to stay away."

Just as her charges are supposed to call her before trouble starts, Beekmann is supposed to smell a situation brewing and intervene before it's too late. She says she has a pretty good feel for those who are going to make it and those who might cause problems. But that could change; her caseload is rising.

The original scheme for YOS called for each agent to have eight cases. Now it's ten to one, and under the new state budget it's expected to increase to fifteen to one. Checking up on her guys twice a week, as she does now, will be "virtually impossible," Beekmann says. "That's thirty contacts a week."

Ultimately, the members of the Phase Three crew will be on their own--if not now, then when they complete their sentences. That may not be a problem for those who, as Bongirno puts it, have something to buy into.

Mark Stettenbenz considers himself one of the lucky ones. A ninth-grade dropout who pistol-whipped a young man in the course of a robbery, Stettenbenz used his YOS time to complete his education and work on the anger ("It was like I was pissed off at the whole world") and other factors he believes led to his life as a hood. Now he's back at his family's suburban home, taking classes at a community college and working for a local car dealer. At nineteen, after seven months of Phase Three, he's thinking about a career designing jewelry.

"I moved back to the same neighborhood, but I don't hang out with the same people," he says. "I see some of them around, the ones who were troublemakers. But I got goals now."

For others, life on the outs is entirely different from anything they're used to. "Staying away from my friends is kind of hard," admits Benito Pineda, who was transplanted to the wilds of Aurora to keep him away from his old gang on the west side. "When I first got out, I was real nervous. I wasn't used to being around a lot of people. I went downtown and then came straight here. It felt weird."

YOS arranged for Chucky Montoya to move in with Penida last month. After a hard week of job-hunting, Chucky likes to kick back on the sofa with a kung-fu video game and try to maneuver his player past a series of high-kicking, fast-jabbing warriors. From time to time, the game's deep-voiced announcer booms, "You win!" But it also booms, "You lose!"

It's only a game, and Chucky, a skilled player, wins far more than he loses. But the outcome of the final round seems very much in doubt.

To date, the State of Colorado has spent nearly $80,000 on Chucky's incarceration and betterment. Whether it pays off, whether the entire Youthful Offender System survives, depends a lot on how Chucky, Benito, Adam and the rest of the program's "graduates" behave on the street.

"It is a lot of bucks," concedes director Groff. "But it's a darn good investment. Clearly, the old approach to corrections doesn't change guys much. So many of them go right back to prison.

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