The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

The hastily drafted legislation that created YOS was sponsored by two Republicans but championed by several leading Democrats, including Groff. The opposition was fierce: Hardliners loathed the idea of a "second last chance" for kids who, at fourteen or fifteen, already had long criminal records, while more liberal legislators argued that the program belonged in the Division of Youth Services (now known as Youth Corrections) rather than the Department of Corrections. Ultimately, the measure squeaked through the Senate by one vote, and Groff, who had already announced plans to leave the legislature, wound up as the program's first director.

The plan was to target kids involved in gang- and gun-related crimes, but not all kids and not the most serious crimes, either. Juveniles convicted of murder, rape and other sex offenses aren't eligible for YOS; neither are those with severe physical or mental problems. That still leaves a wide range of candidates, from downy-cheeked first-time offenders to street-savvy professionals whose entire families are behind bars. (One YOS resident's parental visits consist of strolling across the DRDC compound to chat with Mom in the women's prison.) But Groff concedes the program wasn't intended to be a cure-all for youth violence.

"These kids should have been helped a long time ago," he says. "When you get them at fourteen or older, it's tough. But the legislature was reluctant, and still is, to do anything about helping preschool at-risk kids. Yet they'll drop the direct-file age for juveniles [for prosecution as adults] to twelve. What helps this program is that it's not considered social work. Because it's seen as corrections, we get more support."

Those who qualify for YOS receive a tightly regimented, in-your-face crash course in morals, manners and personal accomplishment. It begins hours after an offender arrives at DRDC, with Hell Day, the first day of boot camp. Residents are kept hopping from dawn to dusk, and sneers are promptly erased from homeboy lips. By the end of the day, trails of regurgitated franks and beans litter the physical training course.

Numerous studies have indicated that boot camps are no more effective in fighting recidivism than conventional prisons. But YOS officials say their boot camp serves as an attention-getter, a way of letting new arrivals know who's in charge and what's expected of them.

"What we're trying to do is get control over young men who've had autonomy since before adolescence," says trainer John Gamez. "We don't pamper them. We hold them accountable from day one."

Boot camp also serves to break down gang members' clannishness and rebelliousness, adds deputy director Richard Swanson, a DOC psychologist and the principal author of the program. "One of our concerns was, are we going to have gangs replicating inside the joint? How do you totally absorb the attention of these kids so they don't fall back on their gang hierarchy?" Swanson asks.

The boot-camp training is a highlight of the program's VIP tours--there's something about the sight of young lawbreakers running up and down stairs, mopping floors and "Yes, sir"-ing that seems to warm the hearts of politicians--but both Swanson and Gamez say it's the least important part of YOS. After residents complete those first few weeks, they're broken into groups of sixteen and placed in Phase One, during which they're expected to continue their education, undergo drug and alcohol counseling as needed and take intensive classes to help them correct their "criminal thinking errors."

What makes all this different from conventional approaches to rehabilitation--a term that YOS staffers avoid, just as they avoid talking about "treatment" or "therapy"--is the emphasis on personal responsibility. "One of the criticisms of juvenile court and the mental-health profession is that you take a kid and say, 'It's not your fault. You had a bad childhood,'" notes Swanson. "You allow that person to defuse responsibility and call himself a victim. That doesn't do any good."

At YOS, every privilege, from phone calls and visits to access to TV and the kind of clothes you're allowed to wear, must be earned. And, just like in the Marines, if one member of a team fouls up, the whole group can be penalized. During daily group meetings, everyone is expected to confront other members of their team over misbehavior. These bitch sessions are part of a larger strategy of promoting teamwork and conformity through "positive peer culture."

"We know we cannot change sixteen people," Noble Wallace says. "We identify the leader of that group--in most cases, a negative leader. We get him to turn around, and everyone else is going to fall in line."

Of course, many YOS offenders already know about the importance of teamwork, status, peer acceptance and the right clothes from their own experiences on the streets. In some ways, YOS culture and gang culture aren't all that different, Swanson admits.

"Many of the things we do rely on the ability to relate with groups," he says. "They involve group loyalty, manipulation of group success. People who strive for group acceptance will do well in this program, and 80 percent of our residents have had some kind of gang involvement.

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