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Should the names of young offenders be made public?

It's a little law that raises large questions. Massachusetts recently enacted a measure that requires courts to release the names of juvenile offenders who have been convicted of two previous felonies in juvenile court. This has triggered debate over how a society that places high priority on protecting youth offenders should handle young, violent criminals.

Advocates say the law acts as a deterrent for young criminals and -- perhaps more important -- as a protection for communities concerned about crime. In their opinion, the public needs to be better informed about a sector of the criminal justice system that has been cloaked in secrecy and choked by inadequacy.

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But the law will have little effect, critics say. They point out that a 1980 Supreme Court ruling already protects the First Amendment rights of newspapers to publish the names of some juvenile offenders -- even if a state law disallows it.

``It makes society feel better, but it's not going to make people safer,'' says Carol Sanger, an associate professor of law at the University of Santa Clara in California. ``It's more like window-dressing.''

State Sen. John Parker, the law's principal sponsor, concedes that the law is not enough to solve the problem of youth crime, but he thinks it could save some people's lives: ``How many ships does a lighthouse save? How do you know?''

According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, Massachusetts is the 12th state to enact a name-disclosure law.

Critics are less concerned with the law's effect than its implications. They say it is a small link, but it is connected to a conservative chain shackling the juvenile-justice system with more punitive measures that neglect rehabilitation.

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