The Closing of the Massachusetts Reform Schools and the Legacy of Jerome Miller

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On January 15, 1972, a caravan of 100 cars drove onto the grounds of the Lyman Reform School in Westborough, Mass. and stopped at the school’s administration building. Jerome Miller, the director of the state’s Department of Youth Services (DYS), emerged from the lead car and walked into the administration building to announce that the few remaining youths were being removed and that the 125-year-old institution was to close.

Over the next year a similar exercise was carried out at the state’s other three reform schools. By the time it was over, Miller had carried out the most remarkable reforms in the history of the juvenile justice system by abolishing the state’s 19th century era reform schools.

The closing of the Massachusetts reform schools stands as the premier event in the history of American juvenile justice reform for a number of reasons. Although long discredited as places of reformation, few could envision a juvenile justice system without the big congregate institutions , since they were long viewed as essential in protecting society from wayward and delinquent youth. Despite decades of documented brutality and mismanagement, most juvenile justice professionals saw the prison-like facilities as serving a necessary function that could not be filled by any other entity.

By his actions, Miller shattered that myth and rendered the reform school obsolete.

Miller was appointed to direct DYS in 1969, during one of the most turbulent periods in the state’s juvenile justice history. Following a series of well publicized reports and public outcry over staff abuse and harsh institutional conditions, the state fired the long-time director and conducted a nationwide search for a replacement.

Miller was a tenured professor of social work at Ohio State University and had never held a position as a director of a youth correctional system. His candor during interviews for the job was apparently impressive and he was selected by Republican Governor Francis Sargent to head the troubled agency that consisted of five reform schools and one mental health facility.

Initially, Miller’s approach to reform followed a conventional path. He issued new policies to improve professional practice within the institutions, organized planning units to infuse a therapeutic ethos, and hired outside consultants to retrain institutional staff.

Yet, during his random and frequent visits to the institutions, Miller became increasingly frustrated with the lack of apparent progress in changing a culture that he viewed as antithetical to accepted notions of curative treatment or humane care. In spite of his best efforts, youth were still subject to an institutional culture of mistreatment, where punishments were arbitrarily imposed by line staff with little guidance or interference from indifferent administrators. Rather than embrace reform, staff initiated a campaign of organized resistance and sabotage, including the posting of escape maps on living unit bulletin boards to encourage youth to run away and undermine Miller’s management.

Recognizing that his conventional strategy of institutional reform was doomed due to the entrenched nature of institutional culture, Miller assembled a small coterie of supporters to plan the unthinkable – the elimination of the state’s reform school system. Miller had come to the realization that congregate institutions were not salvageable and had no place in a modern juvenile justice system.

Miller and his team envisioned a new system where most services were provided in the youth’s community and delivered by local nonprofit organizations. Relying on temporary funding from outside sources, such as the Federal Government’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, the institutions were quickly downsized by placing youth in newly created alternative placements. Much of the planning occurred as the process was underway, since speed was considered essential to avoiding the inevitable backlash from institutional supporters.

When the institutions were emptied, Miller ensured their permanent closure by tearing down the buildings and quickly selling the property. This strategy was to prevent their reopening at some future date and to ensure that institutional funds were redirected to the emerging array of contracted community services. To create a political foundation for the new system and further promote its survival, the new community-based and contracted services were organized into an effective lobby to protect funding and stave off attempts to reopen the old system.

The dramatic closure of the Massachusetts reform schools ushered in a new era of juvenile justice, not just for the Bay State, but for the nation. While his reforms were at first rejected by conventional practitioners, time proved Miller right. His bold leadership demonstrated that reforms schools could be closed and that an alternative system of community-based interventions could be substituted for institutional confinement – lessons that form the basis for most current juvenile justice reform strategies.

Perhaps the most significant example of Miller’s legacy is California. Once the largest reform school system in the world, California’s youth corrections facilities came under severe scrutiny in the late 1990s and early 2000s following a series of scandals and media exposés that ultimately led to a successful lawsuit.

When the state’s correctional institutions proved impervious to change, California followed the path of Massachusetts. Through a combination of incentive legislation, legal action, policy advocacy, and budgetary pressures, the state reduced its institutional population by 90 percent and eliminated eight of its 11 state-run youth correctional facilities.

In the 200-year evolution of the American juvenile justice system, Jerome Miller ranks among its foremost leaders. The noted reformers of the 19th and early 20th century such as, Charles Loring Brace, Jane Addams and Benjamin Lindsey, all possessed the single minded determination and courage necessary to pursue their vision while ignoring the potential personal consequences.

But they had the advantage of building something new where nothing previously existed or their reforms expanded on an already existing system. Miller’s challenge was compounded by having to tear down an entrenched structure and replace it with something new and untested.  By meeting this challenge, Miller set the course for the 21st century juvenile justice system and secured his place among history’s great social reformers.

This op-ed originally appeared in Youth Today and is reprinted here with permission. 

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