There has been a revolution brewing among stakeholders of all juvenile justice walks for years, and I think it has arrived.
Some may say it began with the first juvenile court in 1899. Others may say it was the In re Gault decision in 1967.
I can appreciate these thoughts, but a revolution is “a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people's ideas about it.”
The creation of juvenile courts no doubt was a step in the right direction. Maybe at the time it was “revolutionary,” but looking back it didn't bring about the change needed to make what I call the “complete difference”: the creation of a system that includes every variable, independent and dependent, that scientific studies have shown maximizes the success of delinquency prevention and rehabilitation.
Juvenile courts are but one variable among many that can influence the development of an effective system overall. One could say at the time of its creation that the juvenile court was a predictive variable that sought to influence the variable called rehabilitation by separating kids from adults, but it didn't guarantee they would be treated differently than adults.
The juvenile court was not the panacea of rehabilitation and treatment for delinquency, but it was a giant step in the right direction.
The irony in creating a juvenile court to improve rehabilitation of delinquent youth is that it took the Supreme Court in 1967 to inform the juvenile courts that separating kids from adults is only as good as the due process given to them. In other words, the juvenile court as a variable to influence change became a dependent variable in need of change.
Looking back since In re Gault, the juvenile court has been strongly influenced with the intended purpose of one day becoming a predictive variable that positively influences delinquency prevention and rehabilitation.
Gault brought us the process due kids, but it took revolutionary individuals, organizations and practices to bring what works to change the lives of our kids for the better, and to build safer communities.
We have a number of post-Gault forbearers of this revolution, but I have to say the “shot heard round the world” that started the revolution was delivered by Jerome Miller, the former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. In 1972, he shuttered the youth facilities and returned all the youth to their homes to receive community-based treatment.
It took the establishment in Massachusetts by surprise, and the shock was so great his own staff tried to sabotage his efforts, though unsuccessfully. This courageous act created the opportunity for the rest of us to begin a frank and robust discussion of the deinstitutionalization of youth and alternatives to incarceration as a better practice.
A revolutionist is “one who works for or engages in political (or social) change.” Miller fits the bill.
He would go on to advocate for the deinstitutionalization of kids and for alternatives to detention. He co-founded an organization to spearhead this revolution called the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives based in Baltimore.
He once told The Washington Post that he attracted “an awful lot of enemies around the country” for his revolutionary tactics. The Post also reported that Miller “was criticized at times for being overly aggressive and insufficiently diplomatic in his efforts to upend long-standing institutions.”
Suffice it to say, he was not very popular among many politicians and law enforcement leaders, with some of his opponents arguing that his lenient approach would endanger public safety. When he emptied the facilities, his critics feared a spike in crime, but studies by institutions including Harvard University and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency would later show otherwise.
His “Massachusetts Experiment” inspired other jurisdictions to undergo similar deinstitutionalization efforts. Although these efforts were tempered in the ’90s by the “superpredator youth” scare that generated harsher laws sending kids to adult court and longer stints of incarceration, Miller’s experiment is being revived today in many states, including my own.
In 2011, the year before my governor asked me to take part in a concerted statewide reform effort to deinstitutionalize many youth, I had the good fortune to meet Miller at an invitation-only symposium in Washington, along with some of his prison deconstruction team.
Despite the fact that I led local reforms in my county that reduced detention and commitment rates by considerable numbers, Miller and his team raised my level of juvenile justice consciousness to an whole new level.
I left the symposium convinced that youth prisons for the vast majority of our kids “are bad ... evil ... criminogenic”; that most of the kids “were not victimizers, but rather victims”; and that most kids would fare better at home involved in evidence-based programs.
It was only a few months later that the governor’s staff would solicit my opinion of a juvenile code rewrite bill touted as a “model” for juvenile justice. Inspired by my new consciousness, I replied that the “model code was a lie” and that “there was nothing ‘model’ about it.”
The governor convinced the sponsor to withdraw the “model code” bill, which he did, and in return created a reform council to study juvenile justice and appointed me to it.
Shortly after my appointment, I received a call from a friend who had gotten a call from persons who will go unnamed, describing their concern that “Judge Teske will undo all the work that took years of compromise.” I guess word got out about my “born again” experience at the recent symposium, and that my “uncompromising” and “liberal” consciousness would destroy any chance of the legislature ever passing a so-called “model” juvenile justice code.
But they underestimated the leadership of our governor to devise an approach that begged for success, and underestimated my ability to forge consensus on a nontraditional scale.
Bold decisions were made to limit judicial discretion at the front end by restricting the commitment of low-risk kids, mandating the use of detention assessment tools and requiring risk and needs assessments at disposition. These decisions averted the construction of two youth prisons and later resulted in the closure of two facilities. The monies saved by the reduction in commitments were redirected to the juvenile courts for evidence-based community programs that give judges better sentencing options.
Miller was the revolutionary who showed the rest of us how to revolutionize our systems.
I am not alone in my assessment of Miller. Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, wrote, “The closing of the Massachusetts reforms schools stands as the premier event in the history of American juvenile justice reform … Miller set the course for the 21st century juvenile justice system and secured his place among history's great reformers.”
And to emphasize my assessment, ponder the Post’s announcement of his passing: “Jerome Miller, revolutionized juvenile justice, dies.”
My governor recently described me as a “revolutionary jurist.”
Miller inspired me to think like one, my governor created the opportunity for me to become one.
Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.