States find alternatives to jail for kids in trouble with the law

MASSACHUSETTS and Utah may not have much in common, but when it comes to providing for problem children, they are moving in the same direction with apparent success. While some states, like California, keep building more youth detention centers, Massachusetts and Utah have substantially reduced the number of youngsters in lockups in favor of alternative correctional programs.

Although certain youthful offenders must be removed from society, many who get in trouble can be more effectively turned around in group homes and other community settings.

That approach first took root in the Bay State in the early 1970s, when most of the state's ``training schools'' were closed in the wake of some horror stories of mistreatment.

In Utah, the youth corrections system has also been winning praise. The move toward community-based programs there has not endangered public safety, a recent study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency concludes. And the rearrest rate among youths in the new program there declined sharply.

The increased attention on Massachusetts and Utah comes as 35 states are in the process of reexamining their youth detention and corrections policies.

Considerable credit for recognizing the problem in Massachusetts and taking steps to face it belongs to then Gov. Francis W. Sargent. He brought to the Department of Youth Services (DYS) Dr. Jerome Miller, who orchestrated the reforms on which the state's juvenile-corrections program is based.

The program is winning high marks nationally from prominent youth corrections observers, including Peter Greenwood of the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif. ``It's a good, solid working model,'' he says, which has inspired other states.

Mr. Greenwood cites as particularly successful the outreach and tracking program pioneered in Massachusetts. Instead of caseworkers being responsible for 30 or 40 youths, they work with only two or three. The caseworker, usually a recent college graduate, makes sure the children go to school, that things are well at home, and that the youths are home at a reasonable hour.

``That program seems to be very effective in reducing the tendency of these kids ... to fall back into drugs, to fall back into hanging out with their delinquent peers,'' he says.

The alternatives to youth lockups involve schooling. In many instances the young people do poorly in reading because they dropped out of school or were inattentive while there. It's largely a question of motivation, Greenwood says. The challenge is to make a youngster want to succeed and stay straight.

Edward Loughran, who now heads the Massachusetts DYS, says, ``The majority of kids coming into DYS are from a single-parent family, a school dropout, a property offender, usually for motor-vehicle-related offenses.''

Of the 1,700 juveniles now assigned to the Massachusetts agency, only 10 percent are in secure-treatment facilities.

California, by contrast, now has in its lockups about a third of all the children incarcerated in the nation. Its state detention facilities are operating at about 140 percent of capacity, says Ira Schwartz, former head of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and now a professor at the University of Michigan.

A DYS study in Massachusetts found that ``40 percent of the youths who are considered for secure treatment have been subjected to some form of abuse when they were children.

The DYS today, with its variety of programs, many of them run by private agencies, represents a $51 million annual state investment.

Though certainly not perfect, the programs in Massachusetts, Utah, and other states on the same track are a vast improvement. There seems little doubt that some things work for some youths, under the right conditions.

Clearly, the goal of these programs has to be to catch up with and turn around the youthful offenders - before they reach adulthood.

George Merry is a longtime observer of the Massachusetts political scene.

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