The Case for Gentler Juvenile Justice

ONE of the sustaining principles of the American psyche is that one individual can make a difference.Consumer-activist Ralph Nader single-handedly changed the way the nation conducted its business. Sen. Eugene McCarthy empowered grass-roots politics in challenging an incumbent president during the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr. set both example and course for the forward march of the human spirit wherever men and women face the scourge of racism. The name of Jerry Miller does not evoke the same radical-reformist deeds as those mentioned above. It is not a household name. That it isn't says more about our national indifference to prison issues than it does to his accomplishments. Fifteen years ago, as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), Miller single-handedly closed the Bay State's prison-like "training schools" for delinquents and sent the young inmates home or into alternative programs. Against all odds, he deinstitutionalized the entire juvenile justice system. "Last One Over the Wall" is Miller's account of how it happened. He is writing about himself and what he did as an outsider in the always Byzantine world of Massachusetts state politics. Miller came to learn, then embody, and now he writes about what Aldous Huxley had written before the outbreak of World War II: "Advance in civilization has not been characterized by progress in justice, but rather by progress in charity." But don't look for a coherent, unified statement of criminal-justice policies in this book. It's not there. The closest these pages come to such a presentation is Miller's adaptation of the anti-utopian thoughts of Karl Popper explaining why society maintains the inherently flawed correctional institutions it does. Miller acted on the principle that marginal adolescents should not be put in marginal institutions. He says young people have to be "controlled and motivated through means other than intimidation or coercion." He is convinced that "an overabundance of correctional armamentaria inevitably leads to deterioration in relationships." His account is vulnerable to the charge that it is self-serving. Many of the examples - pathetically inhumane and brutal treatment of youths in the system as he inherited it - ar e from his own recollections.Nevertheless, Miller's examples ring true, serving, as he intends, to prick society's conscience. He began his work by closing the maximum-security, walled institutions for violent youths, some of which had been open for more than 150 years. Two decades later, what has become known as the "Massachusetts Experiment" stands, neither dismissed as the failed actions of a crusading lunatic, nor heralded as the correctional miracle it in fact was. Miller fills his book with relevant data on how blown out of proportion the public perception of violent juveniles usually is. Between 1969 and 1973 from five to eight juveniles were committed each year for murder or manslaughter in Massachusetts - hardly enough to warrant a 2,000-bed statewide complex of reform schools. From 1987 through 1990, long after Miller left the Bay State, figures for the same offenses range between seven and 10, prima facie evidence, he says, that the risk of deinstitutionaliza tion was not as great as it was made out to be and certainly worth taking. Miller knows the pendulum of societal concern swings back and forth between punishment and rehabilitation for juvenile offenders. In light of violence related to youth-gangs and crack-cocaine, he knows which way it is currently swinging. "In criminology today, 'charity' has become a dirty word. It is time for criminologists to recognize the other responsibilities inherent in their efforts, to lift their work to the level of a truly human act." Though the style is uneven and it tries to cover more than could possibly be contained in one volume about the history of complex social institutions and the troubled youths in them, this book speaks from the heart.

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