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During the past year, budding, nonviolent juvenile delinquents have been turned into budding, nonviolent artists, the idea being that the pint-sized perps would sell their artwork to reimburse crime victims. It may be working. The youngsters, all age sixteen or younger, have raised roughly $5,000 (the bulk of it in...
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During the past year, budding, nonviolent juvenile delinquents have been turned into budding, nonviolent artists, the idea being that the pint-sized perps would sell their artwork to reimburse crime victims.

It may be working. The youngsters, all age sixteen or younger, have raised roughly $5,000 (the bulk of it in the past four months) to repay the people whose property they stole or ruined. But does the kind of money shelled out for the program justify the amount of restitution that's been paid? The answer isn't easy to obtain. No one in the Denver District Attorney's office seems to know the answer, and they won't know, they contend, until sometime this week.

According to DA Bill Ritter, the project's cost is small in relation to the good it does. And though it is purported to be his baby, Ritter declines to provide even a ballpark figure for the cost of its upkeep. He becomes defensive when asked about the size of the budget and when asked to rationalize its existence. Those questions, he says, are "frustrating" for him. There is only one person in his entire office who knows the budget, he says, and she is currently unavailable.

Calls to the state's Division of Criminal Justice (which provides the bulk of the program's funding) were equally unfruitful.

But according to Chip Spreyer, who heads intragovernmental relations for the city auditor's office, the Division of Criminal Justice is providing a $197,000 grant to fund the DA's diversion program this fiscal year; the DA must kick in $66,000 more. Those monies are used for the entire diversion program, not just for the art project. The amount of other funding dollars could not be immediately determined.

In 1979 the city established the Juvenile Diversion Program, the aim of which is to stop first-time offenders from graduating into career criminals. It is strictly voluntary--if a young offender has no wish to participate in diversion, he or she can choose to be tried in court and adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent. Diversion participants may be able to avoid court and a conviction altogether. (Arrests, however, remain on record.)

The programs include "Street Law," which introduces youngsters to the legal system and ends with their conducting a mock trial--area judges and attorneys act as "mentors." Another program places fifteen- to eighteen-year-old offenders into internships where they work to raise money for restitution. A graffiti team is sent out to clean up their own--and others'--scribblings.

Youngsters also must participate in victim/offender mediations in which they sit across the table from people they victimized and discuss the crime. They might also be ordered to make a jail tour (a type of Scared Straight session) or participate in individual counseling sessions to deal with drug dependency, alcoholism, family difficulties or mental and emotional problems.

It wasn't until two years ago, when Ritter took office, that the juvenile-diversion office accelerated its efforts, says David Gerber, a volunteer and co-coordinator of the city's newest diversion effort.

It was last year when Ritter and his staff okayed a project called Acquiring Restitution Through Talent, or ARTT. It is made available to nonviolent property-crime offenders ages ten to eighteen, although it tends to attract ages fourteen on down. The reason, says Gerber, is that kids in the lower age bracket generally cannot get jobs on their own. "ARTT is unique in that someone eleven years old can produce something he can then sell and make his own money instead of having someone--his parents or guardian--pay restitution," Gerber says.

The kids are taught by ARTT volunteers and staffers, and the artwork consists primarily of painting, printing and woodworking, with some sculpture and ceramics thrown in.

ARTT is open to eligible offenders regardless of talent. And it shows. The latest gallery opening featuring the offenders' work (which is hung in the Littleton Art Depot's caboose) is a mlange of mostly mediocre--and some downright awful--pieces.

Considering the fact that the youths' only way out of the program is to sell enough art to pay off their restitution--which ranges anywhere from $15 to $2,000--it appears that some kids are just not trying. Gerber admits that some offenders are "reserved" when they begin the program. "They are working to raise money for their restitution, and they are being told to do it," he says. "It's not just fun and games, but we try to make sure that the quality is high enough that people are going to buy it."

Marketability, however, is in the eye of the beholder. For example, a painting titled "Dog" by its fourteen-year-old creator is a single-color outline of an animal that appears to be much more equine than canine. The artist's asking price is $25. "Big Fish," by a thirteen-year-old offender, has a $35 price tag. That's because the boy utilized three colors to make his outline of a shark surrounded by a blue polka-dot sea. One piece, titled "Lil' Eric," features the letters L and E in a style consistent with what one might see scrawled on the side of a dumpster or near the back entrance of a convenience store. The crime that landed this artist in diversion is not hard to imagine.

Another painting is interesting in an urban-primitive kind of way--three stripes of bold color, the middle one of which has been partially wiped free of tint to spell out the word "HOMIES." (The E and the S are printed backward.) It is an intriguing piece, because it is impossible to tell whether the artist was attempting a defiant display of allegiance to his neighborhood gang or if he recognized that yuppie buyers would snap up that kind of stuff. The thirteen-year-old artist apparently knows what he's doing, though; he finished the ARTT program about three weeks ago, after raising $1,600 for restitution through the sale of his work.

The fastest-selling and most beautiful pieces in the show are handcrafted writing pens made with exotic woods and multicolored, painted silk scarves. The majority (if not all) of the pens were sold on opening night at the Depot. At ARTT's first gallery show, held last month at Common Grounds coffeehouse in northwest Denver, the pens also went quickly, and Congresswoman Pat Schroeder bought a scarf.

Future projects include a plan to sell and distribute postcards, Christmas cards and posters.

Luckily for ARTT, buyers do not tend to consider quality alone when purchasing the juveniles' work. Gerber concedes, "If they go on pure aesthetics, we're no match. If they're looking for good artwork and a good cause, we're the ones they come to. We're fortunate in that a lot of people in this community seem to work this way. Certainly, the philosophy of the program spurs a lot of purchases."

The public's generosity does not end with buying knickknacks. Private citizens donate time, materials and work space to the cause. Grant money has been donated by the federal Weed and Seed program and funds provided by the city and the state's Division of Criminal Justice. AmeriCorps has provided a volunteer staffer.

Gerber says that the program not only gives youths an opportunity to develop artistically, but it also enhances their self-confidence and social skills.

"It gives them an opportunity to learn sales techniques," he says. "As you can guess, kids love to sell their work. We bring them to shows and galleries and have them talk with adults. We had an art sale in July where a fourteen-year-old showed up in the morning, sat in the back of the sales booth and said he wouldn't talk to anyone. By 3:30, we couldn't close down the booth because he wouldn't stop talking to customers. He sold $100 of his own goods that day."

About half the program's participants have decided they now want to go into art as a profession. Asked if the program might be raising youths' ambition beyond their talent, Gerber says that's tough to answer. Some kids, he says, show enough genuine talent, desire and fortitude that they just might make it. "There's one particular woodworker," Gerber says, "whose father works with wood for a living. He's been working with his father in addition to the ARTT program. He's a natural, and he could very well have a career in carpentry or cabinetmaking."

Although Denverites don't yet know how much it's costing them, the bottom line, says Ritter, is that one can't place a price tag on success. He then proceeds to do just that. "If it makes a difference in the life of one kid," Ritter says, "then it's paid for itself. How do you measure juvenile rehabilitation? It costs the state $25,000 a year to incarcerate an adult. Incarcerating a juvenile costs over twice that. If you save one kid, that saves the state $25,000.

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