IF A program that attempts to rehabilitate first-time youthful offenders through dialogue with their victims, parents and law officers proves successful, it should be expanded statewide.
The state Department of Juvenile Justice has awarded Howard County a grant to begin its version of the innovative program, which Baltimore is also trying through a private grant. Similar programs are running in Anne Arundel, Calvert and Montgomery counties.
The technique is based on New Zealand aboriginal custom, which encourages "restorative justice" through shame.
Children caught shoplifting, for example, would be required to attend a conference that would include the store owner whose goods were stolen. Juvenile Justice officials will moderate these confrontations in Howard County.
This program is not for incorrigible, repeat offenders who probably would not be moved by such a meeting. Participation is voluntary. Only juveniles with no prior criminal record who have admitted committing a nonviolent misdemeanor would be eligible.
Howard County's first community conference, held recently at Long Reach High School, involved two teen-agers who shot a neighbor's pet pigeon with a BB gun. They agreed to feed the man's remaining pigeons and clean the birds' coop.
The technique holds promise for youngsters who regret their actions, want to make amends and are not likely to get into trouble with the law again. By having juveniles admit their crimes, allowing victims to express themselves and involving enforcement officers in setting appropriate punishment, an entire community can benefit.
Pub Date: 12/29/98