HUDDLED in his chair at the St. Johnsbury, Vt., office of probation and parole, Willy Ben Levitt looks nervous.
The teenager sits before a committee of five from his own town - including a homemaker, a business owner, and a retiree - and explains why he stole four packs of cigarettes from a local grocery store.
After a few minutes of hard questioning, Mr. Levitt is sentenced: Apologize to the store owner and do 30 hours of volunteer work at Lyndon State College, the school he hopes to attend. ''Everything that they ask you to do,'' Levitt says later, ''is based on making your life better in the future.''
Faced with overcrowded jails and courts, Vermont is on the cutting edge of a criminal- justice trend known as ''reparative probation.'' Citizens, not corrections officials, sentence petty crooks, tailoring the punishment to the individuals and the community.
Some states, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, have a few, isolated citizen-run sentencing programs that focus on getting offenders to understand the nature of their crimes and redressing the wrongs, rather than having them pay a fine or do jail time. But no other state is applying the philosophy systemwide. ''Vermont is helping to break new ground,'' says Kay Pranis, Minnesota's restorative justice planner.
''It's part of a trend toward a community-justice system that I feel very optimistic about,'' said Eduardo Barajas of the National Institute of Corrections at the US Justice Department in Washington. ''You're restoring something that has been damaged, and consequently, because of it, you restore the offender.''
Reparative probation is part of a two-year-old overhaul of Vermont's criminal-justice system. With the help of a $1 million federal grant, the state is implementing programs designed to save money and reserve prison space for the most violent criminals.
Under reparative probation, instead of paying a fine and being supervised by one of the state's 70 probation officers, nonviolent offenders such as Levitt - typically petty thieves or youths convicted of property crimes - are sentenced by trained members of the community and must fulfill a punishment within three months.
Since the first reparative board was set up a year ago, other boards have been added to the state's 14 district courts.
But some of Vermont's judges and attorney's are skeptical of the practice. Some critics say reparation is too intrusive in the life of the offenders and the 90-day period is too short to change their attitudes, especially when criminal behavior is fueled by substance abuse, mental-health problems, or lack of job skills.
''It's a charade,'' says David Sleigh, a public defender in St. Johnsbury. ''Who are these people on the reparative board ... to say they have the expertise to cure or make my clients better?''
But state officials expect more judges to refer offenders to the program. One supporter is Judge Edward Cashman. He says that board members can do what he can't: Quiz offenders and develop a more complete picture of them as people. ''Reparative probation acknowledges that young people do dumb things,'' Mr. Cashman says. ''It confronts the difficulty of maturing. It doesn't try to alienate them, to label them as bad, to dehumanize them. It includes them.''
''These people are totally unaware that they have a community around them,'' says Catherine Dwyer, a mother of two, who is on the St. Johnsbury board. Reparative probation ''raises their awareness to the fact they have a responsibility outside themselves ... and that what they do affects others in the community.''
Another offender takes a seat before the board. Anthony Patch, who led police on a high-speed chase, is asked whether he had thought of the police officer's safety. His sentence includes having to attend the autopsy of a victim hit by a speeding driver.