In ordering a preteen vandal from Western Massachusetts to get a job, a juvenile court judge opened himself up to some obvious criticism — as did three state Appeals Court judges when they upheld the ruling. A boy known as Avram in court filings was found responsible at age 11 for $1,000 in damage to his neighbors’ homes in Easthampton, and was given a year to make restitution. He didn’t, so Juvenile Court Judge James G. Collins ordered him to find employment so he could pay. A three-judge appeals panel agreed, urging in an opinion by Judge William J. Meade that Avram try such things as obtaining a paper route or babysitting.
The weakness in these recommendations is that newspapers today generally are delivered by adults on motorized routes, rather than kids on bikes, and that few parents would trust their young children to a sitter who’s facing delinquency charges. The boy’s lawyer pushed the point further, noting that most forms of labor are illegal for 12-year-olds under state law. Yet despite all that, the judges are right, and a legalistic insistence that Avram couldn’t possibly work off his offense would do him — and the juvenile justice system — more harm than good.
The juvenile system is built on the idea that troubled young people can be reformed, and that they will respond to the opportunity to better themselves. It’s an article of faith that offenders who can make it up to their victims are less likely to reoffend. Inherent in the appeals judges’ other recommendations — shoveling snow, raking leaves, carrying groceries — is that surely there’s something an able-bodied 12-year-old can do to earn money, and that doing so will teach him a valuable lesson.
And while it’s highly unlikely Avram can raise the full $1,000 by raking leaves, the judges, District Attorney’s Office, and victims might well be placated if the boy simply made a serious effort.
Meanwhile, advocates for juvenile offenders should be open to alternative punishments. It’s a common, and legitimate, complaint that authorities have become too quick to impose adult-style criminal punishments upon offenders whose brains and moral sensibilities are still forming. Making a delinquent child shovel snow, in contrast, is a punishment that longtime Western Massachusetts resident Norman Rockwell would approve of — and shows the kind of flexibility the juvenile system needs.