The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

But some glitches remain. Cooling his heels on the first tier of cells is seventeen-year-old Les, who's been in lockdown for months--one of the guys Richard described as "on their way to prison." Les has already been through boot camp, but he doesn't want to stay in YOS for one simple reason: The judge sentenced him on a handgun charge to three years in prison or four years in YOS. With all the time he's already spent in county jails and the DOC's earned-time formula for adult prisoners, he's eligible for parole this fall. If he stays in YOS, he's looking at two more years on the inside and a year of community supervision.

"My mom didn't want me to go to prison, and Phase One had good schooling--that's the only thing I wanted to stay here for," he says. "They were going to try to drop a year off my time, but the judge won't do that. I just want to get my time done, but they been messing around with me."

He scowls. "It's hard for me to stay here when they gave me such a low sentence in DOC," he says. "There ain't no way I'm going to do three years here when I can do a couple of months. There ain't no way. I can get out and go to school if I want to."

Noble Wallace says that, of the eleven youths YOS has sent to prison, only three or four were thrown out of the program for misbehavior, from assault on another resident to fouling up in community supervision. Others simply refused to participate, either because of the sentences involved or more personal considerations. One was a member of a notorious Denver crime family.

"His whole family is in DOC," Wallace says. "His attitude was, he's a criminal, he doesn't deserve to be here, he's a wimp if he stays here. He's got criminal behavior he ain't going to change."

Some of the toughest questions about YOS come from officials in the juvenile justice system. In the past decade the underfunded and overcrowded Division of Youth Corrections has been overrun with hard cases, including second-generation gangbangers. Corrections professionals say it makes sense to establish a third tier, a middle ground between the juvenile and adult systems, but they also wonder whether the "right" kids are ending up in YOS.

One persistent criticism is that while the program was billed as a place for habitual criminals, worse offenders often end up in the juvenile system. "There are clearly kids in YOS who are lightweights compared to some you see in [Division of Youth Corrections]," says Grant Jones, chairman of the Colorado Juvenile Parole Board. "We see kids with violent crimes all the time who've been filed on as juveniles--it's just up to the DA's office, and there's never been a whole lot of consistency in the sentencing guidelines."

Similar concerns have been voiced by Denver Juvenile Court Judge David Ramirez, who has suggested that the considerable investment the state is making in YOS, which will exceed $12 million a year by the time the Pueblo facility opens, could be better spent on the juvenile side. Others have raised questions about the racial makeup of the YOS population, which is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic--by design, perhaps, given the program's emphasis on gang-related crimes rather than all felonies.

Noble Wallace concedes that the racial mix did give him pause at the outset. "Our first 47 kids were kids of color," he says. "Number 48 was a white kid, and he just happened to be a skinhead. Came in with a black eye and a broken jaw from the county jail."

The imbalance has since declined. According to the program's latest annual report, roughly 40 percent of YOS residents are black; another 40 percent are Hispanic; almost all the remaining 20 percent are white. By contrast, in the juvenile system, nearly half the offenders are white, a third Hispanic, and only 16 percent are black, according to 1994-95 figures.

"The right type of kid is coming to YOS, as far as the crime goes," Wallace insists. He points out that special legislation allows juveniles with two prior felonies to be direct-filed as adults and sent to YOS. Yet only a handful of residents have been sentenced under that law; fully 80 percent of the YOS population have no prior commitments in the juvenile system.

Those who have had some contact with the juvenile system say that YOS is a better deal. "It's harder, but I think it helps," says Benito Pineda, eighteen, who admits to having been "in the Gill [Denver's Gilliam Youth Services Center] a few times." "When I was in the juvenile system, I used to get in fights all the time. I didn't really care if I went back."

Now Pineda's in Phase Three of YOS, doing assembly work under community supervision in Aurora and completing a two-year sentence on a felony menacing charge. "I look at things different now," he says. "Before, all I ever hung out with was my homeboys. I never really liked nobody. Now I've started kicking with a lot of different people. My gang mentality--I don't think like that anymore."

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