Locked Up for Life

Is life imprisonment the solution for juvenile offenders?

Josh Beckius was fourteen years old when Dayton James was killed in an armed robbery at Boulder's Basemar Cinema Savers; prosecutors believe Beckius served as a lookout. He was sixteen when he was sentenced -- as an adult -- to forty years in prison. By contrast, the three teenagers who murdered Rita French, the mother of one of them, were admitted to a juvenile facility and freed when they turned eighteen. The boys had practiced the murder over a two-day period in 1986; eventually the son went to a nearby convenience store to wait while his friends ambushed French at her Broomfield home, killing her with a dog chain, a pellet gun and a hammer.

Over the past fifteen years, the emphasis of the U.S. justice system has shifted decisively from rehabilitation to punishment. More and more Americans are being locked up for longer and longer periods, and in increasingly harsh conditions. Solitary confinement, once inflicted on only the most incorrigible criminals for specified periods of time, has become commonplace and open-ended. The number of juveniles locked up in adult prisons has more than doubled since 1985.

Colorado has followed the national trend. In 1996, the Children's Code was revised so that kids as young as twelve could be tried as adults: If convicted, a twelve-year-old would be sent to a juvenile facility until he turned fourteen, then incarcerated in an adult prison. The Buena Vista Correctional Facility currently holds half a dozen people younger than seventeen. The youngest is fifteen.

Although Buena Vista has an orientation program for its youngest inmates, the Department of Corrections makes no special arrangements to protect them from violence and rape.

Former state senator Regis Groff was once the director of Colorado's Youth Offender System, which provides a tough-minded rehabilitation program for teenagers convicted of certain -- generally lesser -- crimes. He finds the policy of locking up children short-sighted. "It doesn't deal with what causes kids to be where they are," he says, "with the reality of growing up in a tough environment, with a single parent, poor. It's a punitive response to major social problems."

Although Groff thinks the right program can help juveniles -- "The number of kids who have gone through YOS and fallen back into the system is relatively low," he points out; prison only teaches a young offender to be more violent. "You think they're bad when they go in?" asks Groff. "At some point you're going to see these folks again. And they're liable to be far more dangerous."

The extensive use of solitary confinement, particularly for young prisoners, concerns Terry Kupers, a California doctor who wrote the book Prison Madness.Solitary causes "confusion, paranoia, trouble concentrating, memory problems and difficulty controlling a growing rage," he says. "It takes apart the capacity to be social and caring. They're broken. When they get out, they're not prepared to have normal social relations. They get into trouble with other prisoners or the guards. Often they're just released into society because their term is over, and they get into trouble immediately. Because of the brutal conditions they've been in, they cannot keep themselves in control."

Although anger-management classes taught via TV are commonplace, Kupers says they're also useless. "The context itself causes rage," he explains. "The key to anger management is supervised socialization, to be helped in some kind of graded way to get out of solitary."

Efrem Martin, a onetime juvenile probation officer in Jefferson County, is the director of Juvenile Institute 2000 and the author of It's Time to Come Correct, set for release next month. "A lot of these juveniles are being thrown away," he says. "There are some kids that need to be handled at the adult level. But there are a lot of kids that don't.

"I think any child under the age of eighteen has hope as long as you have the right players involved," he adds. "I've seen it happen. But society doesn't want to spend the money. It's a lot easier to keep on doing what they're doing."

Perhaps we're getting the system we deserve, Groff observes. "We're a pretty violent society," he points out. "You cannot pass even a reasonable gun law in this state. So here we've got adults saying we're gonna put you in jail, but it's all right to buy a gun. That's who we are." -- Wittman

 
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