Juvenile Justice Put in Perspective Massachusetts Attorney General Champions Alternative Sentencing for Less-Serious Offenders
Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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. …