Two US cities try Scottish remedy for youth crime

Scottish justice has come to town, to do battle with juvenile crime in Boston and Cleveland neighborhoods.

It works like this. A couple of junior high students harass an elderly woman for a week. She resolves to take them to court, knowing that little will change and intimidation may increase. Instead of going through regular juvenile-court procedure, the police recommend that she present her case to a Scottish-inspired panel of neighbors and negotiate with the youngsters a way to end the problem.

Ten years ago Scotland scrapped its juvenile court system with its confrontations between youth and police. In its place are panels of trained community volunteers who meet with each juvenile offender. They prescribe appropriate social service to remedy problems that the youngster has.

In 1979, civic groups in Boston and Cleveland, with financial backing from the German-Marshall Fund of the United States, conferred with representatives of Scotland's Children's Hearing System. Last year the Community-Youth Mediation Project was formed in Cleveland, and the Children's Hearings Project in Boston.

Both programs have departed somewhat from the Scottish model. The program in Scotland has the status of law, and participation by youths is compulsory. The US programs call only for the voluntary participation of the parties in conflict , and the resulting settlements are also voluntarily agreed to.

Boston College law Prof. Sanford J. Fox says that the Cleveland and Boston programs are unique in being the only juvenile justice programs in the US to train and use community volunteers as mediators to find solutions to juvenile crime cases.

The Boston program concentrates on family disputes between parents and 12- to 17-year-old children. It attends to ''status offenses,'' behavior that is against the law only for minors, such as truancy, running away, or staying out all night. The project gets its cases from juvenile court, social service agencies, or one of the complaining parties.

Each side in a dispute describes the problem to a panel of usually three volunteers. The panel explores solutions on which the two a contract containing mutual promises.

Brian Harris, a case coordinator for the project, says, ''For the first month the two parties keep waiting to see who is going to break the contract, though both don't like it. The kid is to clean up his room. The parent is to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. After the second month, the agreement becomes second nature. It is monitored for three months.''

Althea Cali, another coordinator, says, ''Children's Hearing Project is unique because there aren't that many alternative programs for CHINS (children in need of services) kids. There aren't that many mediation programs. Arbitration has been going on for years in labor, but we are applying mediation to people. Putting kids in a process where they have a voice is new. It is a shock to them.''

The Cleveland program is being tried in a neighborhood called the Near West Side -- one of the oldest and poorest areas of the city. Program planners found the area to have the most reported juvenile crime in Cleveland, but also a large base of cooperating grass-roots organizations on which to build the program. The agencies can be called on to help the disputants adhere to the contract.

John Mattingly, president of the Cleveland project's board, values the ''community ownership'' of the problems, the process, and the solutions. The area's councilwoman, Helen Smith, agrees. ''The project gives the community a sense of responsibility over the kids other than their own, which we don't have now,'' she says. ''If we can get people used to resolving conflicts instead of settling them violently, we'll have change.''

Both programs admit that mediations are not always successful, but refuse to judge overall effectiveness until they've put a year's experience behind them.

Alan Rew, a Scottish social worker assisting the Cleveland project during its first year, says that in Scotland juvenile crime has fallen decisively since the new system started, compared with sharp rises elsewhere. there are also fewer young repeaters. This is despite a soaring unemployment rate for youths in Scotland.

One factor that may affect experimenting with Scottish techniques in America will be contrasting crime statistics. Scotland has 5 million people. Mr. Rew recalls only one murder by a juvenile in Scotland in the past five years. A year ago the court for the Cleveland area reported that 25 county youngsters were charged with homicide. The county has 1.5 million people.

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