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Juvenile Corrections Reform in Massachusetts

This is an introduction to the 1970s closure of the Massachusetts Training Schools – arguably the most sweeping juvenile justice reform in history. In 1847, Massachusetts opened the first state-sponsored reform school for boys in Westborough, the Lyman School. The first public training school for girls at Lancaster, Massachusetts followed in 1854. Prior to this, facilities for the punishment and detainment of juveniles consisted mainly of jails and prisons. Over the decades 3 additional institutions were constructed.

Towards the middle of the 1960s, a series of critical reports about inadequate conditions inside the training schools began to emerge. As a result, Dr. John D. Coughlin, who was both the chairman of the Youth Services Board and director of the Department of Youth Services (DYS), and who had been an advocate of the philosophy of training schools, resigned in 1969.

Then-Governor Francis Sargent appointed Dr. Jerome G. Miller as director of the new Department of Youth Services (DYS) in 1969, signaling his strong support for reform.

Read Dr. Miller’s autobiographical account of his tenure as former head of the Massachusetts juvenile justice system, Last One over the Wall.

The Miller Administration

Dr. Miller sought to humanize services for institutionalized youths and create therapeutic environments within correctional facilities. This required an open social climate and a positive relationship between staff and youth in small living units. To implement his vision, Dr. Miller had endeavored to overcome institutional inertia by mobilizing and training staff, reallocating funds, and restructuring operations and service provision.

For over 100 years, Massachusetts training schools employed random beatings, food deprivation, and extreme periods of isolation to control youth in their custody. Shocked by what he discovered, Dr. Miller began eliminating the most abusive practices by targeting the two most notorious institutions — the Institute for Juvenile Guidance at Bridgewater and Cottage 9 at Shirley. These facilities were reserved for the most disturbed or rebellious youth.

Dr. Miller issued an order forbidding any staff members from striking youth. Along with this he ordered the elimination of strip cells and extreme isolation methods. Miller made frequent, unannounced facility inspections to determine staff compliance with his directives and found that the banned practices continued unabated.

When Dr. Miller assumed office in 1969, the average institutional length of stay for youths was nearly 8 months. This average length of stay appeared arbitrary and primarily related to long established institutional practices that were unrelated to a youth’s behavior. Toward the end of his first year, he orchestrated a reduction in institutional length of stay by making youth eligible for earlier release. Under Dr. Miller’s directive, youth became eligible for parole release after 3 months, which significantly reduced the institutional population. This resulted in more rapid turnover of the institutional population, necessitating a change in the educational and vocational training programs that were formerly patterned on a full academic year. These more liberal parole policies also began to create tension with the courts and probation and police departments, which felt that confinement for less than 9 months was insufficient time for youth to realize the consequences of their crimes or for their communities to recover from the offenses committed against them.

With his efforts at institutional reform facing defeat, Dr. Miller made the momentous and historical decision to close the Massachusetts training schools. Such as decision was unprecedented and there was no previous example to follow. Working with a small coterie of staff and supporters, Dr. Miller devised a strategy. The training school closures and the transformation of the Department of Youth Services would be accomplished by:

  • Dividing the state into 7 semi-autonomous regions
  • Developing a system of community-based treatment
  • Expanding non-institutional options such as forestry programs
  • Relocating detention centers
  • Creating increased placement alternatives
  • Distributing grants-in-aid to cities and town
  • Developing new secure intensive care units


The process of closing the Massachusetts training school began January of 1972, in dramatic fashion, when Dr. Miller at the head of a caravan of cars, drove onto the grounds of the Lyman School and announced to the superintendent that they were removing the youth. Each youth was placed in a car and driven the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where they were housed for the next 30 days or until a suitable placement could be located. Thus began the most sweeping juvenile justice reforms in history.

The University of Massachusetts organized the transfer of a large number of youth into the community quickly, removing 90 boys and girls from Lyman, Lancaster, and other institutions in the months of January and February 1972. Students at the University served as advocates for the youth while appropriate placement options were located.

Over the next 12 months the other 3 institutions were also closed by Dr. Miller, once emptied of youth, the institution buildings were torn down, sold, or transferred to other state agencies. Through this process, Miller achieved his goal of ensuring that these abusive institutions would never reopen.

The closing of the training schools forced the development of new approaches to serving juvenile justice-involved youth that did not rely on the convenience of institutional confinement.

The new system was envisioned to be more community-based with services provided close to the youths home and family. Services were structured through a decentralization and regionalization of the Department’s resources and administration. DYS divided Massachusetts into 7 regions and new court liaisons worked with juvenile judges and probation personnel to coordinate detention, diagnostic, referral policies, and individual case decisions. A new network of community service programs emerged to serve low and high-end offenders based on their individual needs. Most services were contracted from private nonprofit agencies. While many of these programs fell by the wayside, the approach spurred a juvenile justice renaissance in intervention policies and approaches. New programs emerged that proved far superior to anything offered by the previous institutional system. Rather than be consigned to a one-dimensional institutional program, youth could now access programs that were designed to address their individual needs. As these programs were established and the superior nature of the new system became obvious, Miller’s reforms were consolidated and became the model for a modern juvenile justice system.

The closing of the Massachusetts training schools was a premier 20th century event in juvenile justice reform. This event could not have happened without the extraordinary vision and leadership of Jerome Miller.

Read an opinion editorial by Executive Director Daniel Macallair on the closing of the Massachusetts Reform Schools and the Legacy of Jerome Miller.