Bad Boys

"I started getting in the system when I was ten," says Paul Thompson, now 49. At first it was little stuff, like stealing milk.

But then he got into drugs and drinking and spent most of his time with his friends, hanging out in a motorcycle-crate dugout in the front yard of his south Denver home. Most of his friends were older, and some of his actions were spurred by his desire to look tough, "be a badass" and be accepted by them.

The first time he got in "real" trouble, Thompson says, he was twelve and got caught joyriding in a Volkswagen van with fifteen other people.

"The guys I rode with, we all got taken to court and charged," he remembers. "The judge went down the line -- three months' probation, six months' probation. But when the judge came to hear my case, the school principal stood up and spoke out against me because of things I'd done before.

"They sentenced me to six months in juvenile hall. And that was the start of my stint as a criminal."

Thompson, raised in poverty, was beyond the control of his family. His mother "begged the system for help," he says. "But I wasn't ready for help."

Before he was thirteen, Thompson was deemed incorrigible and sent to the Denver Children's Home, a residential center designed for children in "turmoil," according to Cecilia Mascarenas, a caseworker there.

She was assigned to counsel Thompson.

"She became a friend, somebody I could talk to," Thompson recalls. "She was one of the only people in the system who believed in kids like me. She never gave up. The system gives up, but she didn't."

But even Mascarenas wasn't capable of turning him around. "Poor little old Cecilia," he says. "It was like taking a salt packet from McDonald's and trying to melt a glacier. It's not enough."

For many years, Mascarenas's faith in Thompson seemed ill-placed.

He was in and out of detention facilities for thefts, assault and escape. While still a minor, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for pulling an armed robbery in Boulder. "We used to rob hippies for drugs," Thompson explains. "I was pretty notorious and stupid."

After his parole, he got caught up big time in heroin. And in 1989 he was in trouble again, this time for jumping bail on a case involving criminal mischief, shoplifting and drug possession. He was looking at a habitual-criminal sentence, 24 to 40 years.

Seeking help, Thompson called Mascarenas. Again. Over the years, he'd often called her when he was in trouble. And again, she put in a good word for him -- but said it was the last time she'd do so.

Thanks to Mascarenas, a plea agreement and a judge who didn't know him well, Thompson avoided prison. He was ordered to undergo a two-year drug treatment program at Peer 1.

After the program ended, Thompson chose to stay on at Peer 1 as a counselor. He's been there ever since and now serves as the clinical coordinator, overseeing a staff of thirteen and 82 clients.

It took Thompson more than twenty years to turn his life around. But the faith that a juvenile-court official placed in him two decades earlier finally came to fruition. And that's how Denver's juvenile system is supposed to work.

Last month, Denver Juvenile Court marked its hundredth anniversary, a milestone deserving of celebration. A century ago, Denver was only the second city in the United States -- and the first west of the Mississippi -- to establish a separate court system for minors.

The event was marked by speeches, proclamations, tours and historical displays. Unfortunately, the centennial observation also came at a time when some judicial officials are wondering whether the system is still living up to its promise.

Budget cuts, layoffs and a lack of funding for diversion programs have taken a toll in the past two years. Judges and probation officers are carrying larger caseloads, hearings are being delayed -- sometimes for months -- and drug-abuse treatment is not available for every child who needs it. Worse, a lack of community-based programs means a greater number of kids are being sent to detention facilities than in years past.

The whole point of the juvenile-justice system is to intervene early, giving a child necessary support and trying to make his life as successful as possible, says Denver Juvenile Court presiding judge Karen Ashby.

"Now my fear is that the number of kids who end up unsuccessful is going to increase substantially," she adds. "Experience tells us that if we do nothing, there's not going to be improvement. Now, in too many circumstances, they're left to do nothing."

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Karen Bowers