Remembering Jerome Miller: A Juvenile Justice Revolutionary


Barry Krisberg

Yitzhak Bakal, Paul DeMuro, and Vincent Schiraldi also contributed to this article

A generation of criminal justice reformers was inspired and energized by the extraordinary life and work of Dr. Jerome G. Miller. While we may be in an era of a nascent movement of positive reform, it is important that we recall his enormous contributions to challenging the entrenched unfairness and brutality of the justice system— well before it was publicly acceptable to do so.

Miller passed away this month at age 83.

A product of small town values and Catholic higher education, he served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, where he worked as a social worker, offering solace and healing to battle-scarred soldiers. He specialized in designing therapeutic communities and in delivering high-quality group counseling.

In the late 1960s, he was selected by Republican Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent to head the Bay State's Department of Youth Services (DYS). The DYS was infamous as one of the most brutal and corrupt juvenile correctional systems in the nation.

Miller initially attempted to modestly reform the DYS, but the resistance of the corrections staff frustrated even small humane changes. Miller's response was nothing short of transformative. He decided to close all of the state's juvenile correctional facilities.

In a relatively brief time, over 600 youngsters were moved out of the decrepit and mean institutions to a wide variety of small programs and very community-based alternatives. Researchers at Harvard University and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found the deinstitutionalized system produced lower recidivism rates and was far more cost effective than the older youth prison model.

To pull off this revolution in juvenile justice, Jerome Miller taught us how to build a powerful coalition of supporters for his reform agenda that included university-based researchers, the faith community, neighborhood activists, and the media. He advanced his argument by giving a voice to the young people who were being victimized by the old system.

“Tell them what's been done to you,” he told them at the time.

Miller's reforms were opposed by the entrenched power of the politically connected corrections officers and the hostility of many judges and prosecutors. After the institutions were closed, Miller was recruited by the Governor in Illinois to lead an effort to return youth from distant out of state placements. After his tenure in Illinois, Governor Milton Shapp in Pennsylvania recruited Miller to close down horrible youth prisons in that state.

Miller's work touched off a national movement that led to closures of state juvenile facilities in almost 40 states. This major change in juvenile justice policy was derailed by the manufactured hysteria about youth violence and the “crack epidemic” of the 1980s. But the impetus to close youth prisons has picked up steam again and has led to a dramatic drop in the number of youth in residential placements—down almost 50 percent in the past decade.

Miller wrote persuasively about the immoral and destructive rates of incarceration of youth of color. He documented the obscene rise of mass incarceration and its origins in the drug war and politically popular mandatory prison sentences. He exposed the often out-of-control behavior of police, especially in minority and poor neighborhoods.

Later in his career, he focused on what he believed was the excessively punitive treatment of sex offenders. He was a vocal champion for more humane care of the mentally ill.

Almost all of the leading justice reformers of the past four decades learned their philosophy and honed their skills by their proximity to Miller. He was a patient and thoughtful teacher.

Miller's legacy will be the subject of study for many years, and his impact as a reformer will be felt far beyond the bounds of juvenile justice and the closing of correctional institutions for youth offenders.

He did not just criticize the handling of delinquent youth at the hands of correctional officers. He went far beyond that, addressing social perceptions, values and myths about how to deal with those who challenge the established order.

He observed that the way in which we treat the rebellious young tells more about our own norms and values than it does about the young people being subjected to those sanctions. He went deeply into exposing the misunderstandings about rehabilitation while challenging those who opposed reform.

Creating change in institutional systems almost always meets opposition and organizational structures that fight for their own perpetuation. While staying this very difficult course, Miller took on these bureaucracies and entrenched interest groups and, at the same time, used the media effectively to keep the focus on the abuses.

Most importantly, he was always able to find the inherent good in young people— even those who committed heinous crimes. His daring act of closing institutions for youthful offenders in Massachusetts reverberated across the country, affecting the care of not only the young offenders but the mentally ill and the handicapped in state hospitals.

“The Massachusetts Experiment” (www.AECF.ORG) continues to be an important case study used by several universities in classes teaching social change and organizational reform. Miller inspired a generation of people who have looked at the reform of bureaucracies in a deeper fashion that changed the nature of care for our most fragile populations.

Although he was not physically imposing, Jerome Miller was a “gentle giant”. He almost always spoke in a subdued and calming tone. He was willing to listen to a variety of viewpoints and to attempt to win over converts.

Miller was a quiet revolutionary. Hopefully, his wisdom and strong moral character will guide the current national movement towards a more just society.

He will be deeply missed.

Yitzhak Bakal is the President of the North American Family Institute, Paul DeMuro is a renowned criminal justice consultant, Barry Krisberg is a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley and Vincent Schiraldi is a Senior Advisor in the New York City Office of the Mayor. Bakal, DeMuro and Schiraldi worked for Dr. Miller. They welcome comments from readers.

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