Prison-lite? Colorado retention center rehabs youth offenders
May 13, 2009
Judge Karen Romeo called it a “gift,” but for convicted robber Anthony Sandoval, a six-year sentence to the Youthful Offender System in Pueblo will be life changing.
Even though 17-year-old Sandoval was charged as an adult in the Feb. 13 robbery of the Silverthorne Kum and Go, he won’t go to an adult prison. Instead, he’ll spend six years at YOS, a facility focused on youth rehabilitation. Only if he fails to complete the program will his 12-year adult prison sentence be reinstated. For Romeo and District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, the hope is Sandoval will emerge a more viable member of society.
The program is a middle-tier sentencing option Colorado courts use to address violent crimes committed by young offenders. Colorado is one of a few states that have a sentencing option like this.
“We’re not a boot camp,” said Steve Hagar, the warden at YOS. “We are a prison, a correctional institution.”
Every offender sentenced to YOS also has an adult sentence imposed. The adult sentence is than suspended on the condition that an inmate completes his or her time at YOS. To be eligible for sentencing, a crime must have been committed between ages 14 through 17. The level 3 medium-custody prison lies between the division of youth corrections and the adult department of corrections.
“That way they don’t go in with adults,” Hagar said. “We are now able to place offenders in a facility that is designed for them.”
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Greg Brown, chief probation officer of the 20th judicial district in Boulder, said YOS is successful because it groups peers together and enables them to grow in a controlled and supportive environment. Brown, who has a strong background in working with youth offenders, also said YOS is a reprieve from adult prison because it focuses on vocational training and therapy.
“Putting them in adult prison isn’t good for them,” Brown said. “There’s much less programming and therapy available in adult prison, not a lot of positive work going on. (Adult) prison is a big waste of time.”
According to Hurlbert, other juveniles involved in the Kum and Go robbery could face similar sentences.
YOS programs seek to incarcerate, educate and rehabilitate young people who still have time to change their lives for the better.
Only 20 percent of offenders who complete their YOS sentence will reoffend within three years, Hagar said. Fifty percent of offenders who exit adult facilities will reoffend within three years.
Created in 1993, the facility has up to 256 beds and it houses male and female offenders in separate locations. All offenders must serve their entire sentence ” there’s no parole.
“It’s also not a cake walk,” Hurlbert said. “It’s a pretty tough program. If they fail, the consequences are they go to adult prison.”
After going through orientation, YOS offenders enter Phase 1 of their incarceration. Living within the facility, inmates go to school every day. A high school is located on the prison’s grounds, and all offenders without a high school diploma attend school eight hours a day. If the offender already has a diploma, they go to vocational and college classes onsite.
“Everyone is coming out at some point,” Hagar said. “We’re giving them everything that can possibly turn their lives around. Eighty percent of YOS turn their lives around and they become productive members of our communities. We have offenders that leave here and go on to college.”
Prisoners also participate in classes aimed at anger management and substance abuse, and they’re involved in classes and activities every day from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“YOS can provide more individualized attention,” Hurlbert said. “Whenever we have gang members that commit a violent crime, it’s a good option.”
In Sandoval’s case, he will spend four years and eight months in Phase 1, taking classes and undergoing various treatments.
Phase 2 focuses on slowly transitioning an offender into the community with employment searches and community service. Phase 3 supervises the offender under a community parole officer for an allotted amount of time.
“We can take gang members, place them out of Summit County and get them hopefully rehabilitated,” Hurlbert said. “So, that if they come back, they can re-enter and not go back into the gang activity. Ultimately, I feel that this protects the people of Summit County.”
Caitlin Row can be reached at (970) 668-4633 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.