What We Have Here...Is a Failure to Rehabilitate

The youthful offender system was supposed to save gang kids. Now it’s about snitching, fronting—and growing numbers of teens headed for adult prison.

"You are saying that the only role of the trial court is to impose the sentence," Jackson tells prosecutor Sergei Thomas. "How do I know he's had the right to confront and cross-examine adversarial witnesses?"

Thomas protests that the judge is "interfering with the legislative function." Jackson tries to find guidance in the statute, the case law and the DOC's own administrative regulations, all of which contradict one another regarding the process of sending a YOS washout to prison. After two hours of wrangling with Thomas and public defender Lester Nieves, Jackson decides witnesses should be called. When Thomas says he's not prepared to call witnesses, the judge denies the motion to revoke.

Watching from the gallery, Rhonda Trullinger beams with relief. A former teacher at the Division of Youth Corrections' Lookout Mountain complex, Trullinger has served as an advocate for Howard for the past three years. When she first met him, Howard was already a veteran of the juvenile system, dating back to his involvement in a gang slaying at thirteen. He had been labeled "uneducatable" and didn't even know his alphabet. Trullinger worked with him on his learning disabilities and continued to track him as he drifted in and out of juvie.

Fall in: Teens  who falter in the  Youthful Offender  System are "remediated" to boot camp and the tender care of drill instructors.
Fall in: Teens who falter in the Youthful Offender System are "remediated" to boot camp and the tender care of drill instructors.
Fall out: Antoinette Bustamante (top) and Juan Toribio (bottom) spent months in lockdown waiting to be revoked to adult prison for failing to follow YOS rules (center). Since the program moved to Pueblo, revocations have doubled.
Fall out: Antoinette Bustamante (top) and Juan Toribio (bottom) spent months in lockdown waiting to be revoked to adult prison for failing to follow YOS rules (center). Since the program moved to Pueblo, revocations have doubled.

Details

Previous Westword article

"McPrison"
How a private prison brought jobs -- and violence, corruption and scandal -- to Burlington.
September 30, 1999
By Alan Prendergast

"The Insiders,"
Archive of prison-related Westword stories, including "The Sins of Youth."

"When he ended up in YOS, I thought he finally had a chance," Trullinger says. "He made a huge turnaround. But then, thirty days before he was set to hit the streets, it all went to hell. There's staff there that don't care and don't know how to help these kids. The confrontation he had with a staff member was totally provoked."

For today, at least, Howard has beaten the odds. It's a remarkable victory, particularly since the number of revocations from YOS has increased dramatically in recent months.

During its first four years, a total of 51 offenders were revoked from the program. (Many of those were voluntary; due to sentencing glitches, several of the early arrivals were facing more time in YOS than they were in the adult system and demanded to be revoked.) In the first twelve months in Pueblo, YOS revoked another 24 residents -- twice the previous rate.

There appear to be several reasons for the increase. Last year's escapes certainly boosted the total. A recent legislative audit suggests that YOS has also accepted people who are supposed to be excluded from the program, including a few sex offenders and chronically mentally ill (CMI) teens. (At least a third of the residents are receiving some form of psychiatric treatment or medication.) The YOS critics, though, say that the chief reason for the rise in revocations is the current administration's mishandling of the program.

"In the past, revocation was the absolute last move," says one staffer. "Now they're revoking them for alcohol problems or high-school-type behavior, not criminal issues."

"The system can't save them all, obviously," says Sam Williams. "But it's not being allowed to work. People want to show it isn't working, and revocations are an easy way to do that."

Elizabeth Penland says she was told that the residents who displayed emotional or mental problems were "high-resource consumers" who should be sent to prison if they couldn't "get it together." But in many cases, the psychologist explains, the problem teens hadn't received the training in anger management and other assistance they were supposed to get from YOS, let alone the intensive therapy called for in their evaluation reports.

"I think they wanted to weed out the kids who were the most difficult," she says. "But when you don't have a qualified, intact program, you're going to have more kids having problems."

Public defender Noreen Simpson, who has been involved in four revocation cases in recent months, agrees. "When they're supposed to be released in the community, they don't have any of the tools they should have," she says. "They're the same knuckleheads they were when they started out. It looks to me like YOS is realizing they can't release these kids because they didn't do their job, so they have to revoke them."

Antoinette Renee Bustamante had been in YOS less than six months when she was put into an isolation cell last spring pending revocation. She'd been sent into the program with an adult sentence for assault of 10-32 years hanging over her head; at seventeen, she had joined an older girl in attempting to steal a car from a man. The man was stabbed and strangled.

After boot camp, Bustamante was placed in a YOS unit with the seven other girls in the program. She was the outsider; the others had served time together out of state before the move to Pueblo. She had a series of conflicts with one girl in particular, she says, and was written up frequently for minor infractions such as talking in line.

"I went to staff about the problems I was having, and they told me, 'Just do your time,'" she says, sitting behind glass in a jail in Adams County, awaiting her transfer to Cañon City. "That's not how it's supposed to go in YOS. You're supposed to be able to confront your peers, you know?"

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