Jerome Miller Got the Revolution Started

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Judge Steven Teske(Part 4)

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.

5 thoughts on “Jerome Miller Got the Revolution Started

  1. Anyone interested in Jerome Miller’s journey through the Massachusetts reform schools leading to their closure should read his account: Last One Over the Wall: The Massachusetts Experiment in Closing the Reform Schools. It’s available (like everything else) through Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Last-One-Over-Wall-Massachusetts/dp/0814207588. Apropos of In re Gault, it was memories of the Holocaust which ultimately influenced the Court’s decision. I’ll tell you the story over a drink. All the best – Jay Elliott

  2. Judge Teske–
    Thanks for a great article. I have worked with Jerry since 1974 and co-founded NCIA with him in 1977. As you probably know, he passed away in late 2015. He left behind a legacy of reformers, many of whom have gone on to create major reform in their own right. NCIA is alive and well, and still trying to push the envelope for a variety of institutional populations. Thank you for honoring him with your article. He was truly one of a kind.

    • Thank you Herb. It was an inspiration for sure to meet Jerry just before his passing. His words were fresh on my mind when just a few months later my Governor asked me to serve on a commission to reform juvenile justice. Needless to say, thanks to Jerry my bent of mind was to de-institutionalize our system, and that we did with two prisons taken off line to build and two more closed. I simply want people to know that today’s reforms are inspired by Jerry’s brave and courageous notion to act on common decency. You see, today we have research to support these efforts, but Jerry acted on instinct and good sense. This is what makes him remarkable, and we should all be indebted to him for showing us the way. I am blessed that you should comment; one who knew him personally and struggled by his side. Thank you so much for your comments.

  3. Miller’s effect on our field will last for decades. Like you, I remember every conversation I ever had with him. I first met Jerry in the late 1980s when he was running NCIA. He was inspiring and he had some great associates too, including a kid named Schiraldi. Soon after getting to know the NCIA crew, Paul DeMuro and I were doing a Casey-funded risk profile of committed youth in Georgia. We had a number of meetings with a task force of State officials who were supposed to be helping us score various risk factors for youth in placement facilities. We had the hardest time, however, in getting the committee members to score factors according to public safety risk rather than moral judgment. I was so frustrated by the experience that I leaked the report to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before it was released publicly. I got in a bit of trouble for that, but I suspect Jerry Miller would have approved. The reporter I talked to at the AJC was another kid who went on to do other things: Adam Gelb. Fortunately, one committee member appeared to back me up in the article–an obscure State Rep. named Nathan Deal. I guess Georgia has indeed come a long way since then. (Here’s the 1990 AJC article: https://jeffreybutts.net/1990/08/14/ajc1990/)

    • Wow! What a story Jeffrey. You are correct–Jerry would have approved of you leaking the story to the AJC. Although I knew Paul and Vince before meeting Jerry at that symposium several years ago, it was great to see the three of them together sharing their shared experiences. I enjoyed reading your description of Jerry’s influence on you, and your connections going forward with Paul and Vinny. I am amazed how small this world is that it was Adam that covered the story you leaked. I am not surprise that Governor Deal, then Senator Deal and Chair of the Judiciary, wouldnt fall in line with the usual suspects and push for a watered down version of your report. Georgia has come a long way in the past several years. I never thought some of my local reforms would find a place in state law, but I didnt plan on someone like Governor Deal with his juvenile court judge experience and principled mind to do whats right to come our way and reform the justice system. I say principled because I reside in a county that is heavily democrat and did not vote for Governor Deal, which informs me that he appointed me to serve based on my subject matter expertise and not to gain political capital. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences with Jerry, and the 1990 debacle, and how it relates to both Governor Deal then and today, and to Jerry and how he inspired you as well.