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Balancing rehabilitation with punishment in juvenile crime

WHEN police officer Shawn McMenomy tried to stop a carload of teen-agers on a Friday night along Reno's downtown casino strip, one of the youths grabbed his coat and pulled his arm inside the window -- dragging the policeman alongside the auto. Fortunately, the officer was able to shake loose quickly and was not badly hurt. The 18-year-old driver was charged with battery, and also with illegal possession of a weapon. At a preliminary hearing, he was certified as an adult for prosecution purposes. But later, after some negotiation, the court decided he was a juvenile. He was placed on probation for one year.

Probation officer Mike Pomi had recommended that the teen-ager, who had some previous trouble with the law, be tried in the adult system. ``He walks the streets . . . goes to school. Justice wasn't done,'' Mr. Pomi insists.

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Officer McMenomy says his assailant should have gone to prison. He explains that he was physically hurt and his uniform was torn. It cost him $200 to replace it. And no restitution was ordered as part of the juvenile's probation.

What happened to this police officer is of special concern to family- and juvenile-court judges who adjudicate youth cases. More than 80 of these judges from every state in the Union gathered here recently at the National Judicial College to discuss how to deal with juvenile offenders and, at the same time, bring justice to their victims.

Most states probably would have tried the Reno youth as an adult, indicated Municipal Judge Pamela Lee Iles of Laguna Niguel, Calif. Judge Iles also points out that a ``victim-impact statement'' is required in about half the legal jurisdictions in the United States. This is with an eye toward reimbursing the victim for physical, financial, or other injuries.

Many states also order direct restitution from an offender -- juvenile or adult.

In the case of a youth, a judge may decree financial reimbursement to a victim on an installment plan, or call for community service in lieu of incarceration.

``Restitution is a valuable tool,'' says Emily Baker King, a youth-court judge in Jackson County, Miss. ``It helps the youngster gain responsibility.'' For example, Judge King said, a group of youths who set fire to a church in her jurisdiction agreed to repair what was assessed as $3,000 in damages.

But some jurists say that restitution is not always appropriate for a juvenile penalty -- particularly if a youth has neither money nor ability to make amends to his victim.

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Judge Aaron Cohn of the juvenile court in Columbus, Ga., urges victims to consider suing parents of juvenile offenders for damages. Others suggest that such legal action is appropriate only in situations where it can be proved that parental control was not properly exerted -- and, as a result, a crime ensued. Curfews and regulated car use, for example, are ways parents could rein in potential delinquent activity, judges say.

Marlene A. Young, director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Victim Assistance, points out that victims of crime perpetrated by juveniles are often further penalized by a court system that holds youth proceedings behind closed doors, denies the assailed the right to testify and account for his losses, and doles out comparatively light penalties to youthful offenders.

Some law-and-order hard-liners -- in an effort to stem the rising tide of juvenile crime -- would set aside longtime provisions in most state laws which require withholding the names of juveniles from the news media; would lift the veil of confidentiality from youth records; and would transfer some of the more serious underage prosecutions to adult court.

Lindsay G. Arthur, senior judge of the district court in Minneapolis and a longtime specialist in youth problems, suggests that society must decide whether its aim is to ``punish'' wayward youths or to ``rehabilitate'' them.

``If they [the public] want punishment, we can go back to stocks and whips,'' Judge Arthur says. ``That would have a deterrent effect.''

The Minnesota judge points out, however, that the Constitution and an en- lightened society rule out cruel punishment.

Mr. Arthur says that ``juveniles are probably more amenable to rehabilitation than adults.''

He shies away from prison sentences for youths -- explaining that this type of incarceration often leads to further criminal behavior rather than encouraging reform.

He leans in the direction of the recommendations of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, which stress increased family and community involvement as a way to solve youth crime.

This group of judges holds that rehabilitation should be the primary goal of the juvenile court. Among other things, they urge individual treatment of offenders, maximum judicial discretion in sentencing, school programs geared to prevent delinquency, and greater professional help for families of troubled youths.

At the same time, the judges favor transferring violent cases to adult court and opening up juvenile proceedings and records to serve ``those who need to know.''

This approach would seem to balance the goal of rehabilitation with the need to better serve the victims of juvenile crime. A Thursday column

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