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Jerome Miller, 83; altered treatment of juvenile offenders

Jerome G. Miller, shown with truant boys in 1972, shook up the system for juvenile offenders in this state and others.Globe Photo/File

Up against decades of inhumane tactics and patronage hires in the state’s juvenile corrections system, commissioner of youth services Jerome G. Miller stopped trying to fix Massachusetts reform schools and emptied them.

“You can have the institutions. We are taking the kids,” Dr. Miller famously told staff at the decrepit Lyman School for Boys in 1972, when he loaded more than 100 troubled youngsters into a caravan of cars driven by mostly student volunteers.

Dr. Miller placed the troubled youths in a range of community settings: group homes, drug treatment programs, and job training in what became known as the “Massachusetts experiment.”


In less than two years, he effectively shut down juvenile prisons in the state, revolutionizing the debate about appropriate treatment for young offenders in America.

Dr. Miller was up against decades of inhumane tactics and patronage hires in the state’s juvenile corrections system.Globe Staff/File

Hired by Republican Governor Francis W. Sargent in 1969 as the outsider who could bring change to a costly system plagued by sadistic abuses, Dr. Miller left his post as a psychiatric social worker on the faculty at Ohio State University and plunged into an unfamiliar political landscape.

“The decision to close the institutions grew from my frustration at not being able to keep them caring and decent,” Dr. Miller wrote in his 1991 memoir, “Last One Over The Wall,” in which he recounted clashes with untrained staff who put boys in cages, beat them, and left them in prolonged isolation.

“It was, after all, my system. As long as I was in office, I was responsible for it,” he wrote.

Dr. Miller, who founded the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in 1977, died Aug. 7 at Consulate Health Care in Woodstock, Va., following a stroke. He was 83 and still worked with the center located in Baltimore.

“People used to say to me all the time, ‘What’s his angle?’ ” recalled Joseph Leavey, who worked for Miller during those tumultuous years in Massachusetts and succeeded him as commissioner.


“He didn’t have an angle. His angle was the kids are getting” treated unfairly, said Leavey, now president of the nonprofit Communities for People in Boston.

One of the keys to Dr. Miller’s ability to force change was Governor Sargent’s wife, Jessie, according to Leavey. She emerged from a tour of a facility in Bridgewater and told her husband to close it.

At the Lyman school, DYS pulled the youths out so quickly it didn’t know where to put them. Dr. Miller instructed his staff to organize a “youth conference” at the University of Massachusetts where the boys would live in dorms until placed, Leavey recalled.

When staff protested things were happening too fast, Dr. Miller pointed out that calls to close Lyman dated back to the 1890s. “I’m moving too slow,” he told them.

Dr. Miller, who spent 11 years working for the Air Force, rejected what he viewed as a state system devoted to perpetuating itself by spending the equivalent of tuition at Harvard on juveniles statistically doomed to return.

His earliest reforms included telling staff to stop shaving boys’ heads. In an era of shaggy haircuts for men, a shaved head instantly labeled a kid a delinquent, Dr. Miller reasoned, an identity he did not want them to internalize.

His attempts at change drew a powerful backlash. Larger numbers of boys suddenly started escaping. Miller claimed staff members helped the youths escape in an effort to get him fired. Staff at one reform school hoisted the American flag upside down as a distress signal. He received death threats.


Dr. Miller left in 1973 to work for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services where his actions faced powerful political opposition. He lasted less than two years.

He was hired as youth commissioner in Pennsylvania, and his tenure in that state also was short-lived as he battled a policy of imprisoning youths with adult offenders. He invited the CBS News show “60 Minutes” to report on a recent suicide at a prison outside Harrisburg. The governor soon transferred the juveniles out of the place.

Ultimately, the Massachusetts experiment was held up as a success in several studies. Juvenile crime did not increase and recidivism fell.

“Jerry represents one of those few people who lived his convictions and would not stray from the path of what he knew to be right, regardless of the personal costs,” said Daniel Macallair of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, which Dr. Miller helped start.

Born outside Fargo, N.D., in the tiny town of Wahpeton, Dr. Miller was the only child of a high school music teacher named George and the former Beatrice Butts.

He earned a philosophy degree from Maryknoll College in Illinois in 1954 and considered becoming a priest. He spent a year in seminary before leaving to earn a master’s degree in social work at Loyola University.

In the Air Force, he pressed for psychological testing of men who worked with nuclear weapons. He lobbied leaders in Washington for the program after treating a Strategic Air Command base sergeant who reported he was aroused by bad car accidents and had killed his mother’s kitten during a fight, Dr. Miller wrote.


Dr. Miller was stationed in England when he met Charlene, who was a psychiatric nurse at a base hospital. They were married since 1968 and raised two orphan boys whom Miller met during his career, according to friends. She is his only survivor.

In recent years, the Millers lived in Woodstock, Va., where Dr. Miller enjoyed collecting art and antiques. In the 1980s, he ran the Firebird Gallery in Alexandria, Va., which displayed art created by inmates and mental patients.

The nonprofit he founded with Herbert Hoelter, who had worked with him in Pennsylvania, began with a budget of $500. It now has more than 700 employees who operate several programs, including services for people with development disabilities and suicide prevention for those in custody.

Through NCIA, Dr. Miller also launched one of the first community clinics for sex offenders, called the Augustus Institute in Woodstock, Va.

Throughout his career, he often hired former inmates and troubled souls, bedeviling staff with his idealism. “He would find somebody living under a bridge and tell me, ‘I’m hiring him to work on our Xerox machine,’ ” said Hoelter, who is the center’s chief executive.

Dr. Miller also served as the court-appointed receiver for the child welfare system in the District of Columbia and monitored prisons in Florida for the court system.


“He was just brilliant. He was so far ahead of his time,” Hoelter said.

In a 1989 article for The Washington Post, Dr. Miller acknowledged his more humane methods of handling offenders young and old were falling out of favor. But he remained devoted to convincing criminologists that punitive treatment does not benefit society.

“Harsher sentences, warehouse prisons, and corrections establishment which militantly rejects the idea of salvaging offenders has become the rule of the land. We must now wait for the swing of the pendulum. I fear it will be a long wait,” he wrote.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.