From 1971-73, under the leadership of Jerome Miller, Massachusetts undertook an historic and controversial reform campaign that resulted in the closure of the state’s entire network of reform schools.
In place of the reform schools, Massachusetts erected a regionalized system of community-based care for court-involved youth that relies on nonresidential programming and small treatment-oriented residential facilities.
Rigorous evaluations have found that the Massachusetts reforms reduced recidivism among juvenile offenders, did not lead to any increase in juvenile crime and saved millions of dollars per year for state taxpayers.
In the 10 to 15 years following the closures, many states considered reforms modeled on the Massachusetts approach; however, these reforms were largely abandoned in the 1990s following a spike in juvenile crime rates and alarming news coverage.
Recently, states across the country have been significantly reducing their juvenile corrections populations, bringing renewed relevance to the Massachusetts deincarceration movement.
In December 2011, more than 100 of the nation’s leading juvenile justice experts convened for a day-long symposium in Washington, D.C., to remember and reconsider an historic reform campaign — the closure of Massachusetts’ entire network of juvenile reform schools in the early 1970s. The facility closures were unprecedented and highly controversial, and they were meticulously studied in their aftermath. For a time, many reformers believed that Massachusetts would become the model for similar efforts throughout the nation. However, a serious but time-limited spike in youth violence in the early 1990s prompted a dramatic turn away from rehabilitation and deinstitutionalization in juvenile justice, and the Massachusetts story largely faded from public consciousness.
Recently, however, states across the country have begun shuttering juvenile corrections facilities and dramatically reducing the population of young people incarcerated. Suddenly, far from the one-of-a-kind anomaly it seemed only a few years ago, Massachusetts stands out today as a prescient trailblazer on the path to end our nation’s long-standing overreliance on juvenile incarceration. The symposium was convened to provide present-day reformers an opportunity to review the efforts of their predecessors in Massachusetts, glean the lessons of history and retool them for the current day.
This publication recounts the symposium. It provides a history of the Massachusetts reform campaign and its aftermath, summarizes the major themes and ideas presented by speakers and details the conclusions and recommendations emerging from group discussions.
Forty Years Later, Valuable Lessons from Massachusetts’ Historic Deincarceration Campaign
Findings & Stats
Dramatic shift from custody to community
Between 1968 and 1974, Massachusetts reduced the number of youth in correctional confinement from 833 to 132, which increasing the number of committed youth in foster care placements or non-residential programs from zero to 1,123.
Positive findings from preliminary study
An initial evaluation conducted by Harvard University criminologists found that youth released from community programs in 1974 had comparable re-offending rates than youth released from training schools in 1968. More important, the study showed that recidivism rates in areas of the state with a stronger mix of community programs had measurably lower recidivism.
In the mid-1980s, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency undertook a study of the Massachusetts system. The study compared recidivism among Massachusetts youth released from state custody in 1984 and 1985 to rates among similar youth from several other states that continued to rely extensively on large correctional institutions. It found that Massachusetts had the lowest recidivism rates of any state studied.
Statements & Quotations
While his methods were unorthodox, the mirror of history has shown that Miller’s reforms were sound and sensible, grounded in a solid understanding of what works (and what doesn’t) in combatting delinquency and helping youth succeed. By every measure, the reforms improved outcomes for youth, taxpayers, and communities. Just as important, Miller’s strategy has been vindicated politically, as the radically new paradigm he created for youth justice quickly grew firm roots in Massachusetts and withstood the test of time.
We are together 40 years later not just to celebrate and remember a rather remarkable social experiment, but because we still confront the same conditions, the same challenges, the same inhumanity… We need to convert what to date has been a series of idiosyncratic state-centered developments into a national movement for deinstitutionalization. We need to take what’s clearly an emerging trend and give it shape, coherence, learn from it, and go deeper with it.
– Bart Lubow, The Annie E. Casey Foundation
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