The Sins of Youth

Colorado gambles millions on a second last chance for violent teens

And even though the majority of YOS residents are first-time offenders, that doesn't mean they're wide-eyed innocents--"I had done a lot of stuff, but this was the first thing I got caught for," as one puts it. Quite a few have had their cases plea-bargained down from attempted murder to assault or menacing. And some have killed, like eighteen-year-old Shawn Driskell, who shot a Thornton youth in a dispute over a Colorado Rockies hat in 1992 and wound up with six years in YOS for manslaughter after a key witness, the victim's brother, died in an auto accident days before Driskell's trial. Or like fifteen-year-old Brian, who's serving two years for manslaughter in the death of a teenage girl, a shooting he claims was accidental.

"I consider this a break," says Brian, a slight youth who's still in boot-camp yellow. "I could have got life. Instead of wasting my time and everybody else's time in prison for the rest of my life, I'm able to come here, get discipline, get educated better and be able to be a productive member of society. When I get out, I'm going to be still in high school."

But baby-faced killers aren't the usual YOS fare. More typical, and harder to categorize, is Chucky Montoya, nineteen, who started the program two years ago and is just now entering Phase Three. According to Chucky and his mother, Della, he'd never been in serious trouble before he got into an altercation at a party in Lakewood in 1994. Chucky and his older brother left, but the fight spilled outside, and Chucky stabbed a man who was assaulting his brother. He pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and has five years in the adult system hanging over his head.

Chucky says YOS taught him a lot--he joined the Rams Club, nearly finished his high school credits and "started believing in myself." But his mother has mixed feelings about the program.

"It really broke my heart to see how they would be mean to them and tell them to jump," says Della Montoya about Chucky's boot-camp ordeal. "But that'll teach them a lesson. They have to listen to someone, right? Chucky's always listened to me, because if he didn't, I used to knock the shit out of him. Excuse my language, but that's what I did."

YOS made her son grow up, she adds, and she was relieved that he wasn't sent off to an adult prison. At the same time, she was frustrated by officials' decision to suspend her visits when another member of Chucky's team fouled up. And she's unhappy that they won't let him serve his community supervision at her home in northwest Denver, citing concerns about "gang influences" in his old neighborhood. Instead, he's sharing an apartment in Aurora with Benito Pineda.

"I don't like that neighborhood," Della says. "I'd rather have him at home. Chucky's not a violent person, and he never got in trouble when he was with me."

It's a hot June day on the grocery-store picket lines, and the voice in eighteen-year-old Adam's head is telling him to be cool. Be very cool.

Here he is, a non-union stocker at Safeway, and over here is this guy on the picket line who keeps calling him out. Calling him a scab. Challenging him.

The old Adam would have accepted the challenge in a heartbeat. That's what landed him in YOS. There was an argument, a gun was pulled, and Adam caught two years on an assault charge. But this is the new Adam, and he just walks away. In seconds it's all over--except for the call Adam makes later to Tina Beekmann to talk about what just happened.

Beekmann, an agent for the DOC's Division of Community Corrections, has one of the busiest pagers in town. She supervises ten kids from YOS who are currently back on the streets, completing Phase Three. They're expected to call Beekmann before something bad happens. It's a tall order, but Adam, for one, seems to be managing.

"If I'm having a bad day and somebody gets in my face, I weigh some consequences before I do anything," Adam says. "What they taught us in YOS pretty much applies out here."

Out here, Adam and the other Phase Three offenders no longer have the Rams Club, GGI, or the minute-to-minute structure of YOS to force them to behave. What they do have are ten o'clock curfews and ankle bracelets, twice-a-week random drug tests and once-a-week breathalyzer tests for alcohol. And Beekmann, who meets twice a week with each of them.

Most of the Phase Three offenders are no longer juveniles--they're eighteen or nineteen by the time Beekmann sees them. But the supervision is much more intensive than it is with adult parolees. "When I was working with the adult system, I had a much larger caseload," Beekmann says. "It was harder to build a rapport."

But even with the best rapport, being back on the outs can be a shock. Kids who are used to marching to chow suddenly find themselves roaming free--and confronted with a long list of things they must do to complete their sentence. "On paper, you figure, this kid's going to work, go to school, do community service, report to his corrections agent--but the kid may not be able to handle all that at once," says Carl Sagara, program administrator for Phase Three. "Obviously, school comes first. That and meeting with the agent. The frequency of contact will have a direct bearing on whether they succeed."

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