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Reaching out to a troubled youth can make all the difference

You see them smoking on subways and buses; hassling older people for their seats or money; cruising through shopping malls planning to shoplift; waiting on street corners to snatch a purse. Young toughs, often not even 15. Mostly male. Trouble looking for a place to happen.

Whether you want them locked up on the spot because they are old enough to know better, or your heart goes out to them because they are confused and misguided, their presence in every town and city of size in the United States shouts out that something has gone wrong in their lives. What kind of homes do they come from? Or go home to? What goes on inside the heads of all these punks/children? How can they do so much nothing with so much to do?

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And if you think just a bit further, surely conscience probes: Is there a way to reach such kids before they do something destructive, something on impulse that forces society to slam steel doors on them? Should we be hard on them, soft on them? We must do something.

No one book can answer these questions. But ''The Other Side of Delinquency, '' by Waln Brown (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J.; $17.95 in cloth , $9 in paperback), goes a long way toward making us ask them. Only then can answers follow.

''The Other Side of Delinquency'' is an articulate glimpse at the thought processes of a very inarticulate world. It is the autobiography of a silent young man who opens a verbal window, from the inside, on his delinquency. It describes the early life and teen-age years of a court-adjudicated youth and his successful struggle to escape from the cycle of violence and institutionalization that seemed his destiny.

Brown is courageous to expose the troubled particulars of his broken home and his delinquency. The simple, youthfully honest, almost always confused narrative about his life is illuminating. A compilation of personal memories, court transcripts, welfare agency and foster home records, school reports, and documentation from 18 months spent at the Pennsylvania Junior Republic (a reform school) gives the reader all of the hindsight necessary to understand and, one would hope, see new ways to help correct the problems of the Waln Browns of this world.

Brown's odyssey shows the resilience of kids, no matter how cold the institutional world. If nothing else, this book reminds the adult world it always must meet its responsibility to talk with troubled youths. After all, troubled youngsters should be able to expect adults to go the extra mile with them, Brown says. The best way to do this is to talk with them, draw them out of themselves.

Brown's stay in a reformatory is sobering. It sheds light on a society that continues to pay the high cost - emotional and financial - of sending boys to such institutions, without really knowing what the results will be. Some of the lessons he learns were taught with paddles that had holes drilled in them to make the ''cracks'' sting. (Interestingly, the impression one gets from Brown is that he is not totally against such punishment.)

Troubled kids are not especially looking for soft treatment. ''A lack of discipline had much to do with why most of us were in a reformatory,'' writes Brown. ''This does not mean that we had not experienced various types of punishment intended to 'teach us a lesson' but rather such forms . . . were often ill-defined, inappropriate or inconsistent.'' Brown says troubled kids are looking, rather, for a sense of purpose, ''a reason to adopt and maintain a more socially approved way of life.''

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Again and again Brown portrays how important a positive self-image is to rebellious youth. In one instance, the York County (Pa.) Juvenile Probation Office Probation Record makes a simple statement in its record on Brown: ''Waln's acne has again blown out in full bloom and his countenance might safely be classified as being ugly.'' The matter-of-fact report sits in a file cabinet. The not-so-matter-of-fact boy struggles to find some criterion to judge himself that will allow him to like what he sees.

Which leads to what is perhaps the major point of ''The Other Side of Delinquency.'' Brown's own life points in a direction that has some answers. Thousands of young people have ''endured experiences as bad (as) or worse'' than those he presents. And yet they have become independent, productive members of society, often in spite of what society has tried to do to help them. Extensive research into the common thread among these successes does not exist. It should. It is toward this other side of delinquency that Brown urges that research be focused. His account is a start in that direction.

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