The return to society from prison can be both exhilarating and daunting for young offenders in the “middle tier” between the juvenile and adult systems run by the Colorado Department of Corrections, says the Denver Post in the conclusion of a four-part series. Saddled with adult convictions for violent or chronic criminal behavior and often tattooed inside and out with influences of gang life, offenders from 14 to 18 go through a month-long boot camp. Then they begin working their way through the program ranks and ultimately – if their parole phase goes smoothly – back into the community.
The Youthful Offender System (YOS) program has slipped since 1993, when state legislators created it as a response to the so-called Summer of Violence. After a strong start in Denver, the program was shifted in 1998 to Pueblo, where massive staffing changes ensued, a sex assault scandal involving staff and female residents surfaced, and rumblings followed that the program had lost sight of the precepts of rehabilitation and education. Ideally, the cumulative effect of rigid discipline, positive peer culture, and education sends young offenders back to society with newfound maturity and social skills – as well as vocational skills. Parents who have seen the program make a life-changing difference in their kids lobbied lawmakers hard to extend the expensive YOS, whose per-days costs for each offender are more than double that of other state inmates. In spite of past problems and current complaints that the program has drifted from its original focus, they find it beats the alternative of losing their kids into the black hole of adult prison.