The Case for Gentler Juvenile Justice

By Jim Bencivenga. Jim Bencivenga, a. writer Monitor, was teaching . Miller was running Dys . | The Christian Science Monitor, December 31, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Case for Gentler Juvenile Justice


Jim Bencivenga. Jim Bencivenga, a. writer Monitor, was teaching . Miller was running Dys ., The Christian Science Monitor


ONE of the sustaining principles of the American psyche is that one individual can make a difference.

Consumer-activist Ralph Nader single-handedly changed the way the nation conducted its business. Sen. Eugene McCarthy empowered grass-roots politics in challenging an incumbent president during the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr. set both example and course for the forward march of the human spirit wherever men and women face the scourge of racism.

The name of Jerry Miller does not evoke the same radical-reformist deeds as those mentioned above. It is not a household name. That it isn't says more about our national indifference to prison issues than it does to his accomplishments.

Fifteen years ago, as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), Miller single-handedly closed the Bay State's prison-like "training schools" for delinquents and sent the young inmates home or into alternative programs. Against all odds, he deinstitutionalized the entire juvenile justice system.

"Last One Over the Wall" is Miller's account of how it happened. He is writing about himself and what he did as an outsider in the always Byzantine world of Massachusetts state politics. Miller came to learn, then embody, and now he writes about what Aldous Huxley had written before the outbreak of World War II: "Advance in civilization has not been characterized by progress in justice, but rather by progress in charity."

But don't look for a coherent, unified statement of criminal-justice policies in this book. It's not there. The closest these pages come to such a presentation is Miller's adaptation of the anti-utopian thoughts of Karl Popper explaining why society maintains the inherently flawed correctional institutions it does.

Miller acted on the principle that marginal adolescents should not be put in marginal institutions. He says young people have to be "controlled and motivated through means other than intimidation or coercion." He is convinced that "an overabundance of correctional armamentaria inevitably leads to deterioration in relationships. …

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