The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

Now in its third year of operation, YOS is still too new to have established a reliable track record. So far, half a dozen young men have completed the program; only one of them has been sent to prison for committing a new crime. Overall, eleven felons have washed out of YOS at some stage and been "revoked" to prison; an equal number are currently in the crucial final phase of community supervision.

Boosters say such results, while preliminary, are encouraging. But YOS is also an expensive proposition. At an average cost of $107 a day (about $39,000 a year) for each offender, it's twice as expensive as housing an inmate at one of the DOC's medium-security penitentiaries--and plenty of questions have emerged about the program's methods, its effectiveness and its long-term viability.

Is it possible to drill chronic teenage offenders, many of them gang members, in concepts such as loyalty, discipline and respect--and make it stick? YOS operations manager Noble Wallace thinks so. Even if some of his charges are merely going through the motions, faking it--what staffers call "fronting"--Wallace is convinced the highly structured program will eventually have an impact on the soaring juvenile crime rate in Colorado.

"Staff were having a problem at first," Wallace says, "because they were thinking some of the guys--most of them--were fronting. My theory is, it doesn't matter. Because if you do it long enough, it's going to become a habit."

But old habits die hard. That, at least, is the appraisal from sixteen-year-old Richard, in between hurried bites of a sandwich in the DRDC cafeteria. "The hardest part is being serious all the time," he says. "A lot of us, we never had to be real serious. Never had to show a lot of discipline."

Richard has been in juvenile institutions three times. He wasn't impressed; hence his current stay at YOS, on charges of motor-vehicle theft, burglary and assault. "It's a lot different from juvie," he notes. "There it's more like a chill. You just kick back, sit around all day, watch TV, play cards, go to the gym, whatever. Here you got to do what you're told, or you don't get no breaks."

The khaki next to him, a convicted seventeen-year-old arsonist named Aaron, nods in agreement. (Westword agreed to publish only the first names of several YOS offenders; others consented to use of their full names.) "I'm looking at twelve years in DOC," he says. "Here I'm looking at six. It's a lot better deal, but it's also a lot harder than sitting in a cell. You don't want to screw up."

"A lot of people, they just want to throw us in prison for twelve or fourteen years," Richard says. "But some people figure we got a chance, we can still make it 'cuz we're young. So they give us a program like this. It's a real good program if you want it, but there's some people, they don't want the knowledge. Like this guy right here."

He points out a younger kid in yellow at the next table. "He was in our squad when he first came in," Richard explains. "When we were coming back from church, he got caught talking gang stuff to another individual, so he got moved down to the yellows."

And there are those, he adds, who aren't even allowed out for chow--like the three guys locked down in the first tier, their cell windows covered with newspaper. Guys who refused to get with the program. "They're on their way to prison," he says, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Me, if I hadn't come here, I think my life would have been nothing," says Aaron. "I would have kept on doing the same things. Now that I'm here, I'm going to get an education. I'm going to have a good life."

Richard nods. A month of vigorous physical training has made him confident, even cocky. "Right now we're really healthy, in good shape," he says. "It shows me there's a lot more I could have done with my life."

Three years ago, when Roy Romer called Regis Groff to sound him out about holding a special session of the state legislature to deal with youth violence, the senator from northeast Denver told the governor he didn't think it was a good idea.

"I thought the conservatives would posture all over the place and nothing would come out of it," Groff recalls.

It was the torrid summer of 1993, and the time was ripe for posturing. Reeling from a series of drive-by shootings of small children, the high-profile Tom Hollar murder/ carjacking and other gang-related crimes, Denver neighborhood groups were demanding tougher sanctions against underaged thugs. Going just by the body count, the Summer of Violence was no worse than any other, but juvenile arrests statewide were rising at such an alarming rate (up two-thirds over the past ten years, according to one recent survey) that Romer gave legislators and corrections officials a somewhat contradictory mission: Come up with a way of cracking down on gangs while, as Groff puts it, "taking into account their age. It just didn't make sense to write off every kid who was involved in gangbanging."

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