The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

"You need to start taking GGI more seriously, guy," the teen next to him says. "I always see you smiling at the feedback."

"You think you're in prison, but there ain't no snitches in YOS," one of the Rams tells him.

Others weigh in with particular suggestions about how he should confront his "homes." Mr. Trevino says little, but it's clear he cares more about some members' opinions than others. When one younger boy suggests that he's too concerned about what his friends think of him, that he has a low self-image, he snaps back, "I'm God's gift, bro."

This is too much for Mr. Tafoya. "You think you're some kind of cholo," he says. "You want to be accepted by all the Mexicans. This isn't East L.A., bro. You're not here to be their buddy. Throw this false pride out the window, you'll be all right."

"I don't care what those vatos think of me," Mr. Trevino says.
"If they won't accept your confrontation, they ain't your friend," says another resident.

"If you take a fall, we all take a fall," says another.
"You're still not taking our feedback seriously."
After about an hour of this, the meeting winds down. Some members want to talk about a staffer who wouldn't let them finish a basketball game yesterday because another team was scheduled for the gym, even though that team was willing to share the court ("He should've let the residents handle it," one boy complains), but there's no time left. Staffer Kenlynn Bennett sums up the feedback by suggesting that maybe Mr. Trevino needs to find some new friends. She also cautions the rest about using gang terminology, like "homes" and "gangsta mentality."

The words are forbidden in YOS. Sometimes, though, the mentality endures. Staffers say that conquering gang attitudes and behavior has always been a struggle. It was particularly difficult in the early days of the program, when the first hardcore gangbangers walked into boot camp.

On paper, one of the principal motivators YOS was supposed to have going for it was The Hammer--the long adult sentences facing kids who failed to cooperate. But in the beginning the program was hampered by the fact that judges would frequently sentence offenders to equal or less adult time than they'd be facing if they agreed to go into YOS. Since inmates get time off for good behavior in the adult system and no such breaks in YOS, prison often looked like a better deal. And kids who did agree to the YOS sentence had little incentive to succeed.

"The first few months were rough," John Gamez recalls. "We have seven different levels of confrontation for dealing with problems. The highest is physically restraining a person, and we had many restraints."

"If we were just reacting to behavior, all the kids we had first would have been revoked," adds Wallace. "But we took that extra step because we had 27 staff and 5 kids. It sure wasn't going to look good to go back and ask for termination on 3 because we couldn't handle them."

"The first couple of kids we put out, we knew they weren't ready," says DOC psychologist Swanson. "They got the least amount of time with us--a few months, from judges who didn't understand the program. One of them committed a new crime. He was re-recruited by the gang he left. We just didn't have enough time with him."

Staffers also had to contend with the cramped, temporary space allocated for YOS at the Denver reception center--an unappealing cinderblock complex in the middle of a maximum-security facility. The limitations of the place became even more apparent when judges started sentencing teenage girls to YOS. "We got our first kid in March of 1994," Wallace remembers, "and our first female in April or May. Nobody had thought about that."

It's easy to forget there are girls in YOS; none of them spend more than a few weeks at the reception center. After participating in boot camp with the boys, they are sent out of state to complete Phase One in private contract facilities in Iowa or South Dakota, which have agreed to provide the same routine as YOS. Since the program in Denver is operating at its 96-bed capacity, about eighty teenage boys are sent out of state, too, to similar facilities. It's not an ideal situation, staffers admit, but one that will probably persist as long as the program expands faster than the available bed space.

Still, Groff says the program has been fine-tuned since the rocky early days. Judges no longer sentence kids to mere months in the program--in 1994 the legislature upped the sentencing range for YOS from one-to-five to two-to-six years, including a minimum of nine months of community supervision. Authority for the community phase has been shifted from parole officers to community corrections agents, giving the DOC more direct control of the program from start to finish.

A scheduled move in 1998 to a new, $27 million, 300-bed facility on the grounds of the state hospital in Pueblo will allow the Phase One training to be conducted in what Groff calls a "campus-like atmosphere" while preserving a spartan prison setting for boot camp. Thirty beds will be assigned to females, enough that Colorado will probably take in problem teenage girls from other states. With 230 employees to supervise 300 inmates, the Pueblo operation will be one of the most staff-intensive corrections programs in the country.

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