Public perception holds that compared with serving time in a Department of Corrections prison, youth-offender programs are a cakewalk.
Yet weeks after Bayfield’s Logan Griffith, 20, was sentenced to six years in the Youthful Offender System after pleading guilty to committing armed robbery, Durango criminal defense attorneys say the program is anything but easy.
Youthful Offender System
YOS is a medium-security prison in Pueblo designed for young people who commit felony crimes of violence – including assaults, robberies, burglaries and murder – between the ages of 14 and 19 and are sentenced before their 21st birthday. Unlike Corrections Department prisons, YOS is a highly structured environment that offers inmates intensive cognitive, academic and professional training.
The Colorado Legislature established the program with the idea that society would be better off if young offenders returned with the professional and social skills necessary to survive the job market and thrive in the community.
But Durango criminal defense attorney Katie Whitney, who recently represented a client now serving time in YOS, said a YOS sentence is hard time. YOS’s program is demanding, and those who fail to meet its rigorous requirements face harsh penalties, including serving double their YOS sentence in a prison.
Unlike adult offenders entering the corrections system, on being sentenced to YOS, youthful offenders who couldn’t afford bail don’t get credit for “time served” – meaning the days they spent incarcerated before being sentenced, Whitney said.
“This isn’t scout camp,” said public defender John Moran about YOS at Griffith’s sentencing hearing.
Some wins, some losses
In court, Moran read aloud from a letter written by the parents of a former client, who described their son’s experience in YOS as ultimately beneficial, but suffused with violence.
The parents said YOS’s stringency benefits kids who grow up being in and around continual trouble with police. But YOS is much less positive for adolescents who “only made one stupid choice in their life.” They said: On being submerged into YOS’s inmate population, kids who “never” before thought of joining a gang become gang members “to stop the beatings.”
Moran said the last client he had who went to YOS became a “shining example of how rehabilitation can actually work,” crediting YOS with righting the “pretty ugly path he was on.”
“Despite it being a dangerous and scary place, it served this young man well,” he said in court.
YOS’s 2014 evaluation sheds some light on the pressures of prison life at YOS. Eighty-six percent of inmates surveyed reported feeling safe or somewhat safe at YOS. Asked what made them feel unsafe, 18 percent said “some residents” and 14 percent said “some staff.”
Durango criminal defense attorney Bobby Duthie said the problem posed by fellow inmates is eternal and sociologically inevitable given our penitentiary system. Juvenile offenders sentenced to programs like YOS end up “in detention facilities where they mix with kids with similar or more severe problems,” he said, where a brutal social hierarchy can sabotage rehabilitation.
According to YOS’s 2013 evaluation, of the 54 inmates who left the program in 2013, 87 percent completed their sentences successfully, 7 percent had their YOS sentences revoked and 6 percent died.
Pueblo County Coroner Brian Cotter said four inmates had died at YOS since 2013, three from suicide, one of them from natural causes.
Prison deaths aren’t unique to YOS. Whitney said for criminal defense attorneys, incarcerated clients’ committing suicide is a tragic and depressingly frequent fact of life.
“Doing this for long enough, you want the best for your client, and for them to get all the help they need. There’s an idealistic part in all of us that hopes setting up a sentence like this is going to work. But we’ve also seen clients many, many times come back, and it doesn’t work. That’s the system,” she said.
Figuring it out
Still, Whitney said based on “the general tone of the program and the case managers there, it seems like the people working at (YOS) are devoted to helping younger adults change their lives.”
Indeed, Shirley Steinbeck, an administrative assistant for the Youthful Offender System, said the four-phase program is extremely successful; three years after release, only 20 percent of YOS inmates reoffend versus nearly 50 percent of adult offenders who do time in DOC prisons.
Duthie said though much about YOS is encouraging, in his 33 years representing juvenile offenders, “we haven’t figured out how to rehabilitate juvenile offenders so that they come back stronger.”
“We need the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, lots of money and people with much brighter minds than me who study policy to get involved,” he said.