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Communities like ours in Utah are experiencing an explosion of juvenile delinquency at ever-younger ages. Experts in youth affairs point to the lack of adult supervision in children's lives as one of the chief causes.

Latchkey day care, special after-school activities, curfews and midnight basketball leagues have proliferated in response. But what is mystifying to me is the fact that Utah is totally ignoring perhaps the very best way to supervise youth - through gainful employment.Our state law is one of the chief impediments. The law specifies that 12- and 13-year-old youth cannot work in retail food services, gas stations, cleaning jobs or even lawn care. They are limited to newspaper delivery, some door-to-door sales activities and baby-sitting.

Kids who are 14 and 15 are allowed to work in all of the above occupations, but few businesses will hire them in those positions until they are 16. Federal law adds another twist to the problem by severely limiting hours of youth employment in jobs involving interstate commerce.

Unfortunately, many of today's youthful offenders harden into lives of crime as early as age 9 or 10. By the time many youths are 16, they have a rap sheet as long as most businessmen's customer lists.

Because of our outmoded way of thinking - protecting youth from exposure to the rigors of work life - we are effectively consigning tens of thousands of kids to an alternative form of business training, under the supervision of drug and gang overlords.

Policymakers should change the law, and businesses should change hiring policies. Only then we can say that the leading sectors of our society have ceased to be part of the problem and have begun to be part of the solution to juvenile crime.

Robert K. "Kim" Shinkoskey

Salt Lake City