Co. Unique Youth Offender System Faces Scrutiny


Ten years after its creation, Colorado’s Youthful Offender System (YOS) will continue only if state legislators decide in a session beginning in January whether the middle tier between adult prison and the juvenile system is accomplishing its mission, the Rocky Mountain News reports.

Some fear the program’s $15.8 million annual price tag may prove unjustifiable at a time of state government budget problems. “There’s been talk about YOS being on the block,” said Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, who helped shape it. “That would be bad for us because the only option would be [adult prisons]…this is a place where the state should not become penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The newspaper said that YOS is unique among prison programs around the country, boasting one of the nation’s lowest recidivism rates. The state says only 16 percent of offenders who complete the program return to prison within three years of their release. In the state’s adult prisons, nearly half of ex-convicts wind up back in a cell within three years of going free. It’s also better than the traditional juvenile justice system, which has 30 percent recidivism in the first year after release.

YOS also faces lingering questions about other issues. Among them:

• A clash of cultures between social-service oriented staff and diehard corrections deputies that some critics say has led to an overemphasis on security, inconsistent discipline, and the watering down of rehabilitative programs.

• A sex scandal that erupted in 2001 when three female offenders accused guards of assaulting them. An investigation revealed that other girls performed sexual favors in exchange for contraband and preferential treatment. That cost six staffers their jobs. Two went to jail and the assistant director was transferred.

• Staff reductions that have forced parole officers to take on increasing caseloads and juggle both YOS and adult clients..

One of the program’s chief architects, former Deputy Director Richard Swanson, now calls for it to be removed from the Department of Corrections or eliminated. “I really believe what we captured in the design of this program was fantastic promise,” he said. “But I don’t advocate for anybody to send their kid to YOS now.”


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