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Juvenile Justice Put in Perspective

Massachusetts attorney general champions alternative sentencing for less-serious offenders

FROM his 20th-floor office on Beacon Hill, Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger has a spectacular panoramic view of Boston. But his rise from the more down-to-earth position of a district attorney hasn't interfered with this public prosecutor's commitment to the juvenile justice system.He's continuing a crusade in favor of alternative sentencing programs rather than prison for the majority of juvenile offenders. "I believe very strongly in a specialized juvenile system," Attorney General Harshbarger says, "and I believe that 95 percent of the juvenile offenders do not need to be incarcerated for any purpose of public protection." Last month, Harshbarger won a national award from the American Bar Association for his influence in the area of juvenile justice. He is the first prosecutor to receive the Livingston Hall Juvenile Justice Award. In a recent Monitor interview, Harshbarger outlined the priorities he sees for the juvenile-justice system in the United States. High on his list is dealing with the public's perception of the juvenile-delinquency problem. Despite the headlines and outrage generated by such criminal actions as the Central Park "wilding" incident, in which a group of teenagers beat and raped a woman, there's "no demonstrable evidence of a dramatic increase in juvenile crime," Harshbarger says. He doesn't deny that the issue is getting more visibility as younger kids become involved with gangs, drugs, and guns but says that the overall percentage of serious youth crime is not escalating. "None of us are pleased about random violence or some of the unexplained, totally amoral acts by many 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids. All of us are shocked by the 12-year-old who uses a gun or stabs [someone]," Harshbarger says. It's tempting to assume that "kids are out of control, we've lost our values," he acknowledges. "And in many respects we have lost our values. But there's a part of me that says this isn't the kids' fault. It's the adult world that's lost its ability to frame our central values and role modeling in this area." Harshbarger hopes to use his leadership role to help the public get some perspective on the situation. Even though incidents like the one in Central Park get the public's attention, they are not the tip of an iceberg, he argues. "There aren't hundreds and thousands of other kids out there committing violent offenses and getting no sanctions." A task force Harshbarger chaired in 1977 concluded that no more than 7 percent of all youthful offenders are "hard-core offenders," meaning that they commit serious, violent crimes or show a pattern of delinquency. That's still true today, he says. "The premise that I've had in my career ... is that it's only a small percentage of the juvenile offenders who commit the vast majority of serious and violent crimes," Harshbarger says. It's the public prosecutor's job to satisfy the voters that these "hard-core offenders" will be punished, the attorney general says. But the answer isn't building more jails to house younger kids for longer sentences, he argues. The focus needs to be on rehabilitation for the majority of juveniles. "The biggest problem we face in this system is the lack of resources for dealing with less- serious offenders," he says. The United States justice system does a good job of dealing with the most serious offenders, says Harshbarger, but "what unfortunately occurs is we devote the vast majority of our resources to the small percentage who are the hard-core offenders." Preventive and rehabilitative measures that have proved effective with juvenile delinquents are often neglected, particularly in times of fiscal crunch. At least equal if not greater resources should be devoted at "the front end," Harshbarger argues. "Unfortunately," he says, "it is easier for political leaders to try to provide the quick-fix, simplistic solution. It's always easier to build more prisons, to talk tougher, to pass laws than it is to make a system work long-term. There's no headlines in running a good restitution program. ... The headlines lie elsewhere." In the early 1970s, Harshbarger participated in a pioneering, experimental program in Massachusetts. All large juvenile institutions were closed in favor of a private vendor system and small treatment facilities. As deputy chief of the Massachusetts Defenders Committee from 1972-75, Harshbarger created a juvenile defense unit that became a national model. The program provided specially trained prosecutors to ensure that habitual, serious, juvenile offenders would be prosecuted quickly and vigorously. The program emphasized interagency cooperation designed for early identification and intervention of at-risk youths. "We need to understand that this is a community problem, it's a multilevel problem," explains Harshbarger. "When we talk about juvenile violence, what people mean is hard-core urban violence. And that is not to be excused, but it is just one of several manifestations of our failure to deal effectively with issues of equal justice and equal protection." Community-based, cooperative programs are effective and cost-efficient ways to combat juvenile crime, Harshbarger says. Rather than being "touchy-feely responses," he argues, they are demonstrably solid, efficient, effective programs that will protect the public and are cheaper. "I'm hopeful that the debate can become more focused on what works, not on what looks good or sounds good in response to legitimate public concerns."

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