For a Half-Century, Pioneering Reformer Worked To Downsize Juvenile Incarceration

Paul DeMuro spent career shutting down prisons, building community alternatives

Paul DeMuro, left, accepting an award from Youth Advocate Programs in 2015. Photo courtesy of YAP.

Two decades ago, justice reformers Paul DeMuro and Bart Lubow toured a Cleveland juvenile detention facility with corrections officials. As the group discussed policy and practice while walking along one of the prison-like tiers, DeMuro wandered over to where a young teenager was being held in solitary confinement.  

At the time, the two men were involved in the most prominent campaign to reduce juvenile incarceration. “Paul put his hand up on the window,” Lubow said. The youngster did the same. “They just stood there for a minute. Then Paul was telling him, ‘It’ll be OK.’”

It was a moment that epitomized DeMuro’s five-decade career fighting to keep youth out of locked facilities, and expand the use of community alternatives. A mentor to dozens of the most prominent juvenile justice reformers in America, DeMuro died of cancer on Tuesday, at the age of 78.

DeMuro is survived by his wife of 47 years, Anne DeMuro, who co-wrote a book with him on reforming California’s youth prison juvenile justice system, as well as three adult children and eight grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his son, Timothy. DeMuro lived with his wife in Wilmington, North Carolina, at the time of his death.  

His early work dismantling prisons began within government agencies. But he quickly emerged as arguably America’s foremost expert on the youth prison industry, and how dangerously overused and abusive it had become. DeMuro exposed the heinous hogtying of children in a notorious Florida facility, closed or downsized dozens of prisons, and helped make his longtime home, New Jersey, a flagship of juvenile detention reform.

“He’s made more difference over the last three decades than anybody in this field,” said fellow juvenile justice reformer Earl Dunlap, who emailed daily with DeMuro after the two retired. “I’m gonna miss him terribly.”

DeMuro “brought the rest of the nation along in subsequent years to seriously look at closing and right-sizing youth prisons,” said Jeff Fleischer, CEO of Youth Advocate Programs, or YAP, a national nonprofit that offers community alternatives to incarceration. “Paul was the ultimate advocate for young people, and one of the most loving people I’ve met.”

‘Janitor’ cleans up system

DeMuro’s entry into a career in juvenile justice reform that spanned decades began with the position of janitor. At least on paper. 

He grew up in Philadelphia, and attended Villanova University on a golf caddie scholarship, before pursuing a doctorate in English at Ohio State University. There he met social workers Jerome Miller and Tom Jeffers, who had created a program to help inner city students prepare for careers in corrections, mental health and human services.

When Miller and Jeffers left in 1969 to lead the Massachusetts Division of Youth Services, they wanted DeMuro on the team. But janitor was one of the few open jobs that did not go through the patronage-heavy civil servant system. So Miller hired DeMuro to handle maintenance at a facility in Shirley, Massachusetts – a cottage complex reserved for the most violent or rebellious youth. 

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A 2006 photo of the Lyman School for Boys, now a historical landmark, one of the facilities shuttered by DeMuro and colleagues in the 1970s. Photo: WikiCommons

Miller then transferred the superintendent at Shirley to a forestry camp 120 miles away. 

“Jerry gave him a memo saying that he was the new super at Shirley,” said Joe Leavey, Miller’s then-deputy commissioner. The cottages were among the first facilities closed under Miller. 

In 1971, Miller, Jeffers and DeMuro went on to shutter another troubled facility, the Lyman School for Boys. That happened over the course of a weekend, before any politicians could raise a stink. They quickly moved to replace it with community programs in Boston and other communities around the commonwealth. With the governor’s support, they then managed to close the state’s other large youth prison the following year, despite a loud chorus of objections. 

“The Massachusetts experience was so radical and unique, it just meant the bar for Paul was always set high,” Lubow said. Because his first foray into reform was so dramatic, “his sense of what was doable was much greater.” 

Anne DeMuro joined the DYS staff as an administrative assistant in 1970, and met her future husband at work. A Connecticut native, she graduated from Simmons College in Boston, a double major in publication and English. 

“It was just a job I took,” not a particular calling to juvenile justice work, DeMuro said. “Back when you got a little newsletter with your phone bill – that was my other option, writing that.”

One weekend in the summer of 1971, she chaperoned a group trip from the detention center to a Boston Red Sox game – Paul DeMuro was also on hand, with his three young children from a previous marriage.

“He used to tell that story. A co-worker saw the way he looked at her that day and said to him, ‘You’re a goner,’” said Sheila Bedi, who worked with DeMuro on dozens of reform campaigns over the years.

Anne joined DeMuro and his kids at his house after the game, where they played softball on the beach. “That was kind of our first date,” she said. Two years later, they were married. 

The decarceration efforts continued, heading next to Illinois and Pennsylvania. DeMuro eventually became the latter state’s commissioner for children and youth, and helped develop the model for what would become YAP, which Jeffers, who died in 2015, founded and led until 2003. 

DeMuro was also instrumental in the evolution of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a national effort launched in 1992 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to reduce the pretrial detention of youth, a chronic source of racial disparity in the juvenile justice system. DeMuro is credited with helping to turn his home state of New Jersey into a model for statewide adaptation of the initiative.

“He embodied what I often describe as the essence of good technical assistance,” said Lubow, who was the initiative’s founding director. “He could tell people in positions of power who determine things that they are being jerks – without losing them.”

‘God-awful hell holes’

After his time in Pennsylvania, DeMuro became an expert witness for others seeking to close or dramatically improve conditions within their juvenile justice facilities. 

Claudia Wright, former associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project, recalled in an email her years on the road with DeMuro going to “god-awful hell holes, full of kids, usually in the middle of nowhere.”

In the early 1980s, Wright sat with DeMuro on a concrete bunk at the infamous Florida’s Dozier Reform School while staff “explained why it would be impossible to operate the facility if they were not allowed to hogtie the kids.” 

It was an eye opener for both of them on how violence can become ingrained in the culture of a system. “They saw no reason to hide it from us,” she said. “They thought what they were doing was right!”

Dozier, among the most notorious facilities in America, was closed in 2011, one of many large juvenile facilities that DeMuro had a hand in erasing or downsizing.

DeMuro spent another decade serving as a federal court monitor for a broader lawsuit involving Florida’s juvenile justice facilities – a role he would play in Mississippi, Oklahoma and Louisiana as well. 

“He never got himself tied down to any particular entity being his meal ticket,” said Dunlap, the former CEO of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, who said DeMuro was his unofficial adviser when he was reforming Chicago’s detention center following a federal lawsuit. “He said what he had to say, he didn’t give a damn who it was” but, he added: “he was much more of a finesser than I would ever be.”

Those closest to DeMuro said it was not his battles with government operators, but his interaction with youth, like the one in the Cleveland detention center, that defined him.

“It was such a pleasure to witness him with kids in facilities,” said Marty Beyer, a renowned psychologist in the juvenile justice field. “He was a never-ending leader for getting kids out of facilities and into community-based programs.”

In the early 2000s, Bedi brought in DeMuro as an expert and strategist in Mississippi, which at the time was home to a squalid female juvenile facility and a monstrous, 400-bed training school for boys. 

“He said, ‘I’m a happily retired and grumpy old man, so I’m only interested in this if we can close down prisons,’” said Bedi, who now heads a law clinic at Northwestern University. 

“‘If you can agree to that, let’s do it.’”

The two spent months pinballing back and forth between the prisons in Bedi’s Volkswagen Cabrio, the passenger seat stuck too close to the dashboard. DeMuro had just had a knee replacement, and would climb from the car only to walk the sprawling grounds of the training school. 

“At the end of one trip, we were driving back to Jackson, and he said ‘After a day like this, you owe me a bottle of red wine,’” Bedi recalled.

The girls facility was closed in 2008, and the boys school was pared down to a capacity of 80. The celebration became a custom – dozens of facilities fought, dozens of reds consumed. 

Bedi is one of several national reformers who said they counted DeMuro as their mentor. The list includes Dunlap, just a few years DeMuro’s junior; Fleischer, of Youth Advocate Programs; Liz Ryan, founder of Youth First Initiative; and Vincent Schiraldi, who led Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice system and served as commissioner of the New York City probation department. 

Schiraldi led an overhaul of D.C.’s system, beginning with the closure of a 208-bed prison that DeMuro had documented for the court was teeming with cockroaches and mice that would run up kids’ legs at night. 

“Paul used to call me all the time” amid the reform process, he said, during which Schiraldi was regularly pilloried by a Washington Post columnist. “He said, ‘You’re pissing off the right people. The more people scream, the better you’re doing.’”

‘It hasn’t hit me yet’

Paul and Anne DeMuro, both avid tennis players, lived for 26 years in Montclair, N.J., before retiring to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2005. DeMuro was honored for his life’s work in 2015 at the 40th anniversary of YAP, the incarceration alternative program he helped spread to 29 states. But he accepted the lifetime achievement award by flipping the frame, his characteristic humility on full display.

“Our youth and families may be poor economically, but not in spirit,” DeMuro said in his acceptance speech. “They enrich and nourish our lives in so many ways. We, I think, get far more from them than we give.”

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Paul DeMuro at his home in North Carolina with grandson, Jarreux, and wife Anne. Photo courtesy of Anne DeMuro

A year later, DeMuro had a stroke after having open heart surgery, and lost his peripheral vision. 

“He had a great deal of difficulty reading” after that, Anne DeMuro said. She would read him position papers that colleagues wanted feedback on, and he would dictate notes to her. Though tennis was no longer an option, he walked two-and-a-half miles each day, to the community dock along Wilmington’s intercoastal waterway and back. 

In early March, DeMuro was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer, which had spread. When he had to go to the emergency room earlier this month with the coronavirus pandemic raging all around him, his wife was walled off from seeing him in his final days. But then things turned around just in time. “Fortunately he tested negative, and they sent him to hospice care and I could be with him,” she said. 

Still, because he’d previously been ill, they had time to talk about the end. “I just feel for the people who have family that suddenly get sick,” Anne DeMuro said. “It hasn’t hit me yet that he’s not here, that I’m never going to have another conversation with him.”

In a manner nobody could have imagined a month ago, the stunning societal impact of coronavirus has brought into bold relief the central thesis of DeMuro’s professional life: That juvenile crime can be safely managed without locking kids up. The reliance on detention plummeted in March as the pandemic took hold in America, according to a survey from Annie E. Casey Foundation. And counties across the country, including Los Angeles, have released hundreds of youth from juvenile halls. 

DeMuro would surely argue they never needed to be there in the first place. 

John Kelly can be reached at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1205 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.