Local Buzz: Mentors instead of cell mates

Published January 2010 Vol. 14 Issue 1

Colorado Springs non-profits find alternatives to prison for juvenile offenders.

by Chris Bolte

Robert ran away from home at age 17, dropped out of school and couch surfed throughout the Colorado Springs area for four months. He was reluctant to talk about what, exactly, he did, so left it at he “got into trouble” and found himself in a treatment program through the Division of Youth Corrections. Through this program he was able to attain his GED and get started on a new path.

His circumstances are not at all uncommon.  Dropping out of school has ramifications for young adults; idle time, isolation and even being cut off from many services provided for those still attending school. It can be a recipe for bad decisions.

Minor charges specific to youth are things like truancy or running away from home, gateway crimes.  Some youth continue on this track to more serious crimes.  They can be sent to the Division of Youth Corrections or, even worse, adult prison.

From there, if a youth returns to the same peers upon release, the same temptations to commit crimes and return to the system all over again are all but inevitable.  This is what we have come to know as the recidivism problem.

Noticing this trend, a few individuals have stepped up and created non-profit intervention programs.  That’s precisely where Robert’s story takes a turn.  “Jim hand picked me,” Robert said, remembering the first day he met Jim Hinkle, executive director of TwoCor.  “He said he thought I would be a hard worker.”

TwoCor is a non-profit working with youth in Colorado Springs, providing mentor programs and support for young men. To hear it from Hinkle, TwoCor offers young men the opportunity to gain work experience and, more importantly, gives them an environment where positive male role models and mentors can surround them.

TwoCor tries to replicate as much as possible a healthy family dynamic, Hinkle said. After graduating or completing the program, mentors hope youth are equipped with the know how to get along in the adult world. 

On the other end of that hope is Robert. “Now I have my own apartment, pay my bills and have become a man.”  Robert said, now 20 years old and in his last months in Two Cor.  “I’ve been with TwoCor for one year and one month,” Robert says, beaming with pride. “Being able to talk to someone with a similar background has made it easier to get through my problems,” he said.  “ I don’t want to drink or take drugs anymore.”

The Crossroads
Today there is a crossroads between the methods of zero tolerance crime suppression and the intervention/prevention models in youth corrections.  Although suppression, meaning arrest and incarceration, has been the main thrust of crime prevention for the last few decades, the costs have been high and the outcomes less than satisfactory.  One result from these suppression methods is giving America the highest number of people in prisons than anywhere in the world, with 2,304,115 inmates. 

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project, Colorado has an incarceration rate of 506 per 100,00, which is much higher than the national average of 462 per 100,000. And according to the 2007 Annual Statistical Report from the Colorado Department of Corrections, at least 53 percent of those released from prison in Colorado return within three years.

Methods of dealing with juvenile delinquency are about the same as adult.  The Colorado Springs Police Department made more than 4,800 youth arrests in 2008. And with the exception of a spike in 2004, this arrest rate has hovered around the mid 4,000s since 2002.

With such a high recidivism rate, Coloradans are trying to find more functional approaches to juvenile justice. The Youth Transformation Center is another organization working with youth while they are still in custody of the Division of Youth Corrections (DYC).  Youth Transformation focuses on restorative justice as a means of helping both the victim and the perpetrator heal from the harm done. 

President and founder of Youth Transformation, Jeannette Holtham, stated that after release youth often go back to their families and peers, whom are not necessarily healthy to begin with. “Without role models there is no forward momentum,” she said.

Holtham stated that the most important goal is to empower youth: “We don’t do everything for them, we give them the resources to do it themselves.”

Also as an attempt to turn the tide in youth corrections Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA) introduced the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education (Youth PROMISE) Act. Under this Act, each community would establish a PROMISE Coordinating Council (PCC) including representatives from law enforcement, court services, schools, social service organizations, health and mental health providers and community based organizations. This Act would also require youth-oriented police officers trained to address the specific needs of youth.

Jennifer Bellamy, Legislative Council for the American Civil Liberties Union said that the Youth PROMISE Act is unique in that is does not fall back on the ‘cookie cutter’ approach to youth crime, and it offers an opportunity to address the root causes of youth and gang violence by taking preventative measures.  Each PCC has the authority to address their specific community needs, whether they are gang violence or truancy, and fund organizations that are evidence-based (meaning they produce figures and statistics to prove their effectiveness each year). 

Representative Scott said, “Having a 5 to 1 return on money invested in evidence based programs is not at all uncommon.” Additionally, the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice stated in their 2009 annual report that more than 70 percent of the decrease in crime since the 1990s is due to factors other than incarceration.

The alternative to the Youth PROMISE Act is the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act that is currently in the Senate.  “The Gang Abatement and Prevention Act will use draconian measures such as 20 years for violent crimes that are not serious,” Scott said.  About the two acts in the Senate, Scott said, “At this point it is a question of whether we want to reduce crime or play politics.”


A step forward or two steps closer to prison?

Linh Vuong and Fabiana Silva of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency  released a special report in 2008 comparing the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act (GAPA) and the Youth PROMISE Act (YPA).  The GAPA aims to alter the definition of a gang member, which will likely charge individuals not in gangs as gang members.  Furthermore, this act extends the scope of crimes gangs can be charged with as well as the sentences for such crimes.  Harboring Illegal Aliens is included on this list as well as life without parole for all ages.  The YPA does not intend to alter any gang sentencing laws and does not define gang terms.
The GAPA will also create a gang database that does not specify how gang members will be on the list nor how long they will be on it.  All of these factors fall under suppression. The YPA focuses more on prevention and intervention.  It does this by electing PCC’s that will assess each community’s needs and issues, then implements programs that are evidence based to intervene in at-risk youths’ lives before they fall into a life of crime.  Each community will have a different plan for combating crime based on its specific needs.   
Although the initial cost for the YPA will be higher than the GAPA, the former’s cost will drop over time saving money from fewer incarcerations, whereas the latter will rise over time with more incarcerations for longer sentences.