The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

"The problem is that what you're feeding on is the same dynamic as the gangs out there, only now our gang stands for good things. Once they leave us and go back to the community, it's very easy for the gang to operate on the same dynamic. That's why you have to provide more than simply positive peer culture."

Teenagers are quick to pick up on the latest slang, and the teenagers in YOS are no exception. It doesn't take them long to master the program's baffling lingo and endless acronyms: PT (Physical Training), PPC (Positive Peer Culture), IDO (Intake, Diagnostic and Orientation, another term for boot camp), GGI (Guided Group Interaction, the peer-counseling sessions), DRDC, DOC.

After a week or so, even the youngest yellow can recite the proper definitions for respect, loyalty and integrity. By the end of the first month, the sharper khakis are already making smooth references to confronting their thinking errors and finding new ways to cope. But whether they are merely talking the talk, or actually experiencing the kind of radical change in outlook YOS expects of them, is difficult to determine.

"These young men didn't turn into deviants overnight, and it's going to take time to turn them around," concedes trainer Gamez. "Basically, we're asking them to embrace a new belief system."

Many of the kids who go to YOS have most, if not all, of the baggage traditionally associated with delinquency: broken homes, deficient education, absence of male role models, the whole Blackboard Jungle package. Many don't seem to have a clue as to why they did whatever brought them here. But when they do talk about it, they talk a lot about being angry--or, in YOS-speak, about being drawn into thinking errors such as "easily angered," "easily misled," or "lack of a concept of injury to others."

Listen to khakis Richard, Aaron and Domingo as they try to account for their crimes:

"Mine, I guess, was a little bit of easily angered and inconsiderate of others," says Domingo, a former east Denver gang member. "I mean, they went and did something to me, and I got angry and seen them, and I was inconsiderate."

Translation: Domingo shot somebody. Members of a rival gang came to Domingo's house, broke the windows and scared his mother and sisters. Domingo says he was no longer gangbanging, but somehow he ended up cruising with his homeboys, looking for the guys who did it. Everybody in the car had a gun, and they ended up crashing a party, and the other gang started throwing rocks.

"I was angry, I guess," Domingo says. "I just shot 'em. I know it wasn't right, but when I think back--all the shit they put me through, the way they scared my family--I don't feel sorry for what I did. I know I should. I know it was stupid to do that. But I don't feel sorry."

At sixteen, Domingo already has a wife and baby. He was facing two charges of attempted murder, dropped to a single count of assault because of a lack of witnesses or a weapon. Given a chance at six years in YOS instead of sixteen in the penitentiary, he took the deal, hoping to get back to his family before his son is as old as he is now.

"They say prison corrupts you," he says. "It's not that. What corrupts your mind is people not caring, saying, 'He's a criminal, lock him up.' Prison, you know, they don't teach you nothing. But here I got a chance to go to school. I been thinking, 'I got a son. I better start planning something.'"

Aaron, from Fort Morgan, says his crime "wasn't a gang thing" at all. "It was mainly because of anger," he says. "It's a little town, and me and some of my friends, we were like the main troubles. The whole town knew us. Every time we'd go to court, the judges would bring in people to testify; they'd have old people in there who'd always say bad stuff about us. So we kind of got back at the whole town."

Last year Aaron and his friends got back at everybody by torching the historic Baker School in Fort Morgan, a school once attended by Glenn Miller, who used to climb on the roof to play his trombone. The building was insured, but preservationists say the landmark structure is irreplaceable. Some locals wanted to see Aaron spend a considerable chunk of his life in prison for such senseless destruction; instead, he has six years in YOS ahead of him, time to try to figure out how to get back across the line that separates him from people who don't plot revenge against entire towns.

"The other day, I didn't make my bed in the morning," he says. "They found out and they took away all the rest of the khakis' pillows. Just because I didn't make my bed. Here you got to work as a team, not an individual."

"We're not as bad as people think," insists Richard, the burglar/car thief. "It's not that our hearts are bad. It's...nobody's perfect. Some mistakes are worse than others, obviously, and our mistakes were a lot worse. But everything has a reason. This guy didn't shoot nobody; I didn't steal nothing; he didn't burn nothing for no reason. Really, I think we're better than people make us out to be."

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