With Juvenile Deincarceration, Jerry Miller Was First One Over the Wall

Note: This article was updated on Friday, Aug. 14

In 1992, 15 years after Jerry Miller founded the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA), New York Times editor David Anderson described the radical leader of juvenile deincarceration as a man on a “lonely crusade.”

By that time, he had already helped fling open the doors of large juvenile prisons in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, emptying them of juveniles and rerouting youth to community-based alternatives. He did so from the inside, as the leader of those state’s juvenile justice agencies. In Illinois, as child welfare director, he brought back hundreds of youth who had been shipped to out-of-state foster care.

Today, the movement to downsize the deep end of juvenile justice is hardly a one-man party. Scores of advocacy organizations, including a conservative group called Right on Crime, have made closing large facilities a priority. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s juvenile justice portfolio was for decades rooted in reducing the reliance on juvenile detention; it has recently expanded its scope to focus on curbing long-term lockup. Large states, including California, Texas and Georgia, have initiated significant reductions in state-sponsored juvenile incarceration.

It all began in 1971, when Miller — then in charge of Massachusetts Division of  Youth Services — met his lead staffer Tom Jeffers for drinks in a Boston pub. The two decided that the Lyman School for Boys, a training school with a history of abuse scandals, was not an ailment in need of a cure. It was, they decided, a gangrenous arm that needed to be cut off.

Jerry Miller

Miller passed away last week at the age of 83, and was laid to rest today.

His legacy extends beyond his own accomplishments. Consider the following branches of the Miller family tree:

Jeffers, his right hand in Massachusetts, went on to found Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), the largest provider of community-based alternatives to incarceration in the U.S. today. Tim Roche, former head of YAP’s New York operation and former head of the Justice Policy Institute, got his start at Miller’s NCIA.

Paul DeMuro, who has been involved in just about every significant juvenile justice reform of the past 40 years.

Vincent Schiraldi and Dan Macallair, two feisty Miller acolytes who co-founded the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Macallair still leads the organization; Schiraldi led the reform of D.C.’s dysfunctional juvenile justice agency before heading up probation for New York City.

Youth Services Insider had the pleasure of interviewing Miller several times over the years. It was never dull, and it was certainly never brief. His sprawling mind spewed tangential facts and stories that left this reporter with sore hands.

By all accounts, Miller went about the task of deinstitutionalizing juvenile justice without a fair warning or passing apology for those who opposed him. Today’s downsizing, by contrast, is a complex dance of bipartisanship, philanthropic support and legislative maneuvering.

Miller may not have thrived in this current environment. But he was custom made for the job of being first.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1051 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.