Nineteen-year-old John Pennington just completed his third semester of college classes and is now giving serious thought to law school. Already, John has intimate knowledge of the legal system; by summer's end, he will have completed his two-year sentence in a juvenile lockup.
John is not the typical incarcerated youth. He represents the best-case scenario of how intense intervention can redirect a young and troubled life.
"I started getting into trouble when I was 13. I was breaking rules, not obeying my parents, stealing things. I was put on probation, but I didn't take it seriously. I didn't think they'd do anything to me. I still kept breaking the rules. Then the court said, 'No more chances,' and I got locked up."
At 17, John was sentenced to two years at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a medium-security prison for kids perched on a hillside in Golden, Colo. But unlike in the adult prison system, where the chief objective is confinement, the Lookout Mountain juvenile program emphasizes rehabilitation.
"The treatment groups here are really good. I've learned a lot about myself, and how to express my feelings appropriately," Mr. Pennington says. "Personally, I'm glad I came here. I feel if I hadn't, I would have ended up in a lot worse place - in prison, or dead."
Lookout Mountain is run by the state's Division of Youth Services. Most of the 192 kids incarcerated here fall between the ages of 14 and 17, although the occasional 12-year-old shows up. The average sentence is one year. A maximum sentence of five years may be handed down for the most serious juvenile offenses. Each offender incarcerated at the facility costs taxpayers $150 a day.
Youths who end up at Lookout Mountain typically have failed in such community-based programs as probation, day treatment, and group homes. This is very likely their last chance to go straight.
"These kids are at the tail end of the system. Many of them dig themselves into a hole they can't get out of," says Jerry Adamek, director of the Youth Services office. Still, experts believe delinquent youths - unlike most adult criminals - are by and large reclaimable. The prognosis, however, is heavily dependent on the treatment such kids get.
The justice system is trying, in part, to respond to is the sense of fear in the public, says Steve Bates, director of Lookout Mountain. "Locking someone up does give society the feeling that something is being done. But unless you're locking someone up for life, they're coming back out. So the degree to which you can maximize their progress is to the benefit of society."
Delinquent youths are a product of their environments, Mr. Bates says. "There's a lot of abuse and neglect involved. We're dealing with poverty, single-parent families, and both parents out of the home. We have to look at how we're raising kids, and all the systems society has in place. I don't think it's as simple as locking up the end result - the kid - and thinking that's going to solve the problem. Tough consequences don't change what causes this in the first place."
At Lookout Mountain, the focus leans heavily toward education - not just academics, but social and survival skills: "We try to create an environment in which kids can develop the skills they would have with good parenting: Things as simple as how to relate to people in authority; keeping a job; how to dress appropriately, Mr. Adamek says. "We're trying to develop a level of awareness so that they return to the community with a greater sense of right and wrong."
In addition to a standard academic program, Lookout Mountain residents can enroll in accredited college courses. There is an extensive array of vocational training, from auto mechanics to culinary arts. Team sports are offered. Counseling programs run the gamut, from drug and alcohol treatment to family and "offender-specific" counseling: Property offenders, violent offenders, and sex offenders, for example, each have their own treatment group.
Pennington, who has earned his way into the "Golden Eagles" honors program at Lookout Mountain, says victim-awareness training opened his own eyes: "Before, I never thought about the people who were affected by what I did. I never thought about what the victim would feel like. No one ever talked to me about those things before I came here. For me, this was the most important thing.
"I've gone through some challenges here," Pennington says, "and a couple of times I felt like giving up. But I didn't want to let myself down. I didn't want to waste all the work I've put in."
Not every youth at Lookout Mountain becomes a success story, though. Thirty-five percent will reoffend within a year of their release. Still others will land back in the system down the line. And while participation in the facility's counseling programs is encouraged, it is not required.
In reality, not every kid is interested in changing. "Some people here don't care what happens to them, either while they're here or when they get out," Pennington says.
Some juvenile-court judges say states would get better results by simply imposing longer sentences in juvenile lockups. Shifting kids to the adult system won't help, says Denver Juvenile Court Judge David Ramirez. "Adult jails ... don't rehabilitate people. If those jails are failing adults, what good are they going to do a kid?"