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ANTIQUATED, unsanitary, scandal-plagued Montrose School went out of business March 18. The century-old ``reform school'' for delinquent youths is the most recent prison for children in America to be shut down. That a prison could be shut down in 1988 - a time when the public has become almost paralyzed with fear of juvenile crime - is no minor miracle. If anything, there are strong pressures to clamp down harder on juvenile delinquents. Indeed, in the past 10 years, America has moved away from the rehabilitative ideals embodied in a separate justice system for kids.

Borrowing from the more punitive system of adult corrections, states are instituting harsher penalties for some juvenile offenders and locking up more of them in reform or training schools. At least half the states also have laws that make it easier to prosecute children as adults, a trend that each year puts 4,000 juveniles behind bars in state prisons.

The ``get tough'' approach has been led by judges who use lockups as a favorite sentencing option; by prosecutors who claim juvenile offenders are becoming increasingly violent; and by correctional officers who say youths must be removed from society to be rehabilitated.

But other juvenile-justice experts continue to press for youth rehabilitation outside a prison setting - closer to the community where delinquents come from and where they will have to return after their release. And, very slowly, more states are starting to choose community-based alternatives over large correctional institutions like Baltimore's Montrose.

States as diverse as Oregon, Florida, Texas, and Utah are closing or drastically reducing the size of juvenile prisons in favor of other alternatives. This quiet revolution - which began in 1972 when Massachusetts set the juvenile-justice world on its ear by abruptly closing its troubled training schools - is spreading.

For instance, the kids who used to be in the Montrose School are now being supervised in smaller, community-based programs.


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