When Minors Break the Law

So ask yourself, if you were the parent of a teenager in trouble with the law in the United States, in which state would you want to face a judge - Utah or Massachusetts?

Surprisingly, either state would be fine.

At first glance these two states make strange bedfellows. One is overwhelmingly Republican, the other a Democratic enclave. The Beehive State is perhaps the most socially conservative in the US; the Bay State, certainly one of the most liberal. But for more than two decades each, as a matter of public policy, seeks the least restrictive alternative to incarceration for a minor. Each keeps teenagers out of jail except for capital offenses or cases where public safety is clearly at risk.

Utah takes a very paternalistic approach. Since the state's founding, its Mormon majority was predisposed to involve parents in any problem (and solution) a child might have with the law. From the '70s, Massachusetts targeted social and economic factors as the key determinants of a minor's getting into trouble, shifting blame from the individual to the environment.

In criminal justice terms, the result was the same - fewer kids doing time in a state facility than the national average; fewer offenders taking the first step on the rung into the prison system.

One development to alternative sentencing for juvenile offenders is an approach to corrections called restorative justice. It is taking off in Canada as Ruth Walker details in today's paper (Page B3).

Restorative justice puts a premium on resolving a crime between the parties involved. It sees crimes as offenses against individuals and communities rather than against the state. It seeks restoration of victims and reconciliation between victims and offenders, instead of prison sentences. The state's role is more as a referee than a party in a criminal proceeding. Most parents and teenagers, if given a choice, would choose restorative justice. For minors, this is rightly so.

* Comments? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail Ideas@csps.com

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