No justice, no peace; an interview with Jerome Miller.

Author:Szykowny, Rick
Position:Race, Crime and the Media - Cover Story - Interview

According to the latest (what else?) polls, the fear of crime has become a full-scale national panic: over one-quarter of the respondents-28 percent--in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll cited crime and drugs as the greatest problems facing the nation, leaving in the dust such previous winners as unemployment (9 per, cent), health care (8 percent), and foreign policy (2 percent).

This explosion of fear--unreasoning, all-consuming, and markedly anti-humanistic--is tearing away at our national sanity and poses an ugly threat to our future. Consider some recent events: in October 1993, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Sharon Pratt Kelly, formally asked President Clinton to send the National Guard into the city to help "secure" black neighbor, hoods. Although the District of Columbia is the most heavily policed sector of the nation, it has also (not coincidentally) become the nation's "murder capital": 1,300 homicides in three years. Some members of Congress have even demanded that the Justice Department deputize them as US. marshals and allow them to carry handguns. Orrin "Quick Draw" Hatch and other congressional personnel have already been armed and deputized.

While some people are justly concerned about the implications of placing the nation's capital under military occupation, others have enthusiastically embraced such initiatives. For example, in a recent appearance on "Charlie Rose," jazz critic and self-acclaimed "hanging judge" Stanley Crouch called for the U.S. military to operate internment camps within US. borders for our "internal enemies" And in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, hundreds of National Guardsmen and police have taken over 23 public-housing projects since June, usually (as Dave Beard of the Associated Press describes it) "in swift nighttime operations complete with helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and shouted orders to residents."

Meanwhile, in New York City, a man shoots and kills two muggers who attempt to hold him up as he walks home. Much of the city responds to the deaths of these two black teenagers with barely concealed rejoicing. "They miscalculated when they tried to pick on him," said one citizen, who sent the man a $500 prize, "and I'm glad they did it." Another man told reporters: "I wish he took out a few more of them." Two days later, two off-duty police officers separately shot and killed two more alleged muggers.

And yet, in the latest issue of The Public Interest quarterly, Jeffrey Snyder insists that we have become "a nation of cowards and shirkers" and that the only feasible solution to crime would be to arm everyone.

What is happening in this country? We asked Jerome Miller, the executive director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives. The NCIA, headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, has worked hard to develop a range of humane alternatives to our current strategies of incarceration and retribution, while Miller himself is among the most thoughtful and progressive analysts of American crime policy. Not surprisingly, he had much to say about the hidden agenda of our malfunctioning and brutal criminal-justice system.

The Humanist interviewed Miller on October 21, 1993.

The Humanist: Tell me about the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives. What kind of work does it do?

Miller: Well, we're a nonprofit group that I founded about 15 years ago now, to provide some alternative ways of looking at the criminal-justice system. We do a lot of alternative sentencing for people who would otherwise go to prison or jail. We do a lot of work with street offenders and with some white-collar offenders as well. We do a fair amount of death-penalty work, preparing mitigative studies people being tried on capital offenses. We do research on various issues. We also do some consulting with reference to prison and jail overcrowding, and then we have an active clinical program for violent offenders of various sorts.

The Humanist: When you say you do "alternative sentencing," does that mean you're working with various law-enforcement authorities and prison systems?

Miller: No, primarily with individual cases. We've probably done 12,000 to 15,000 alternative sentencing proposals, which means we go into court on the day of sentencing and propose a range of options for people who would otherwise be institutionalized.

The Humanist: What kind of options?

Miller: Oh, a wide range of things: community service; restitution to the victim; if necessary, various forms of supervision within the community; drug or alcohol treatment programs. We try to do for the average offender what a thinking, compassionate, middle-class parent or brother or son would do for someone in their family were they in trouble--that is, design some kind of program that would hopefully prevent the person from committing any more crimes, but also that would try to deal with that person decently and humanely. And we try, as much as possible, to divert them from the criminal-justice system, and certainly from the correctional system, which we see as ultimately much more destructive than helpful.

The Humanist: How big is the NCIA?

Miller: We have a staff of around 200. Some of them are in direct programs, like the closed facility for violent youngsters we run down in Florida--kids committed to us primarily on charges of murder and serious aggravated assault and that sort of thing. We also run a fairly large program in Baltimore for mentally retarded offenders who otherwise would be in the back wards of state hospitals; we have them in a variety of supervised living arrangements in apartments around the Baltimore area. Then our central office in Alexandria, Virginia, does mostly alternative sentencing. And we have a clinical program that deals with violent offenders and sex offenders; we always have about 60 or so people getting treatment in that program on any given day.

The Humanist: So your operations span pretty much the entire United States?

Miller: Yes, we've had offices in a number of states, although we had to pull back because it just got to be too much to manage. Some of those offices have spun off on their own. The offices in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago are separate entities now, locally incorporated.

The Humanist: And how did you end up in this field?

Miller: Well, I'd previously headed a number of state systems. I was the head of the Pennsylvania Youth Correction system for Governor Milton Shapp, and when he left office I decided to found this organization. Before that, I headed the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services; and before that I was on the cabinet of Governor Frank Sargent, a Republican governor of Massachusetts, and headed the youth-correction system there.

The Humanist: And how would you describe the success of the NCIA's programs? What kind of results are you getting?

Miller: Well, most of the studies done on our alternative sentencing have been very positive. I think we can mitigate a lot of recidivism and cut back on serious offending, and we can certainly break into the cycle of violence which so much characterizes the present corrections and criminal-justice system in this country--which is now probably the single greatest threat to our national well-being in our history. The single greatest contributor to crime and mayhem on the streets today is the criminal-justice system itself.

The Humanist: Then what do you think the purpose or philosophy of criminal justice is, or should be? What kind of purpose animates you?

Miller: Well, hopefully to bring some peace and calm to the community--but I don't think that is true any longer. There's been a real sea change in this country in our approach to criminal justice. For the most part, particularly in the last six to eight years, our "war on crime" has been focused on the poor and minorities, especially black men. It hasn't come back yet to bite the majority--but that will ultimately happen. I don't recall seeing anything like this ever before. And you know, I was a psychiatric social-work officer in the Air Force for 10 years, with the Strategic Air Command and with the Tactical Air Command in this country and overseas, so I don't come from a tremendously liberal background. But I've been around the criminal-justice field some 30 years now, and I've never seen anything like what we've been seeing in the last decade, much of it coming out of the so-called war on drugs. It's now routine for prosecutors to engage in the worst kinds of dissembling and dishonesty, for the police to lie and subvert the truth in pursuit of a confession, to pay snitches, and to subvert justice in every way without a single pang of conscience or second thought about it.

The Humanist: You're saying this happens now more than it has in the past?

Miller: Oh, much more. I mean, there was probably much more open police brutality in the 1930s in terms of extracting confessions and so on, but it's a much more powerful establishment now. It's a huge, multibillion-dollar industry, and it has become very subversive of American democratic principles. I think the majority of the white population gets a little inkling here and there with things like the Waco tragedy or even the Randy Weaver siege out in Utah. These incidents give you some idea of what's going on in terms of the gross misuse of power by the police, by prosecutors, by the courts, really with little regard for truth and less regard for anything decent or humane. This establishment has just built itself up fantastically over the last decade. And its power has mostly been concentrated on the black community. I've just written a book which has been accepted by Cambridge University Press, to be published early next year; it will be entitled Search and Destroy: On the Plight of the African-American Male in the American Criminal-Justice System. And I predict in it--much in line with what Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie has said--that...

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