Felons' Last Chance to Avoid Adult Sentences

It's Zero Day for a group of baby-faced felons at the Youth Offender System, Colorado's cutting-edge program for violent juveniles who've been sentenced as adults. They stand stock-still in lemon-yellow jumpsuits, their shaved heads held erect, as a drill sergeant delivers a verbal sandblast into their faces. No question, these youths are paying attention.

This is the induction into an experimental program the state hopes young offenders will never forget. "The first time I watched, I felt compassion for them," says Bill Lechuga, YOS administrator. "But then I saw how effective it is."

YOS, a unique middle tier between juvenile detention and adult prison, is considered a national model for rehabilitation of hard-core offenders under 18.

Its chief weapon with young felons is the promise of a "second last chance": If they play by the rules, these juveniles can skip their adult sentences. But first they have to make it through a two- to six-year term in a setting beyond tough love. Hanging over their heads is the knowledge that if they fail, their adult sentences are waiting for them.

"This program is the one I think offers some real hope," says Liz McDonough, Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman. Early indications suggest "we can turn them around" in YOS.

The Corrections Department developed YOS following Denver's infamous 1993 "summer of violence," when numerous gang-related shootings brought citizen fears to a high pitch. Colorado Governor Roy Romer called for a rehabilitative program for violent youths that combined "an iron fist with a helping hand." The state committed $25 million in construction costs, plus another $96 a day per resident, and YOS was born.

During the first 30 days in the program, offenders endure a grueling mini- boot camp, with strict discipline and intense physical activity. They scrub floors, clean windows, and march in the prison yard of the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center - the maximum-security facility which houses the fledgling program. At night they sleep on wafer-thin pads on hard pallets. The youths are not entitled to visits, phone calls, or letters, nor may they talk among themselves.

Teaching respect

This period is calculated to break down negative attitudes and teach respect for authority, says Mr. Lechuga. "Most of these kids have problems with adults and authority. We need this phase to get them under our control." By the second month, offenders start equally rigorous education and counseling.

"In reality, this is the hardest phase for a lot of kids. We really make them work," says Lechuga. At this stage, behavior modification plays a central role. "We challenge their criminal-thinking patterns. They don't empathize, so we do victim-awareness training to try to develop a notion of victim empathy."

The program also aims to establish a "positive peer culture" where the group rewards positive behavior - an important element, as most of the offenders are gang-affiliated and vulnerable to negative peer influence. "This approach holds the kids accountable as a group," says deputy director Richard Swanson, a criminal psychologist and attorney. If one kid breaks the rules, the group gets punished.

Incentives are also key. Good behavior begets perks like free time, visits, snacks, and better clothing: From yellow jumpsuits, residents may trade up to khaki slacks and maroon polo shirts. They may also earn increased status.

"In this program, we have put together everything that has been shown to work. We have every card stacked in our favor," says Dr. Swanson, who developed the YOS program for the Corrections Department. But with the program in its infancy, no one knows what recidivism will be.

To date, nearly 200 youths have entered YOS. Of the 11 youths who so far have been released, one has already reoffended. Five others were temporarily yanked back to the program for straying from the rules of the community-supervision phase, which spans a year. Some question whether the first round of YOS participants were the best candidates, however. The idea is to get youths who aren't hardened criminals.

"You get as much out of the program as you put into it," says Bill, an 18-year-old who came to YOS last year with a four-year sentence. Some youths won't improve, he says, because of pride. "They don't want help. They refuse to change." Bill, however, has already achieved leadership status.

Staying out of trouble

Eighteen-year-old Heranio was sent to YOS 11 months ago after a first-time offense of auto theft. He says the program has helped him mature. "I've learned how to take my problems head on, instead of keeping them inside." But staying out of trouble remains a concern. "I'm worried about being in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says.

Some experts maintain that once a youth has been behind bars, it is tough to overcome the stigma. "Once they're in the system, they pretty much spin their wheels," says Dean Wright, a sociology professor at Drake University, in Des Moines, Iowa. Having been labeled as "bad," they tend to view themselves that way. And "the more you do crime, the less it becomes a taboo," says Mr. Wright.

But YOS administrators believe they can reverse that score. "We're trying to give these kids the notion that they can get what they need to succeed in society in a legitimate way, through education and bettering themselves," says Swanson.

"The youths here are not necessarily bad kids. They are kids who have done bad things," Lechuga adds. "They know that if they don't become a contributing member of the community, we will recommend that their original sentence be imposed. We make it clear that they control their destiny."

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