Miller's 'Search and Destroy': grim outlook

June 23, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

"Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System" by Jerome G. Miller. 304 pages. Cambridge University Press. $24.95.

Juvenile crime is exploding, as a new breed of ever-younger, sociopathic delinquents wreaks havoc in America's cities. Laws are soft on criminals, allowing them to cycle through the system while collecting new victims. Kids who go wrong should be locked up earlier and for longer.

"Search and Destroy," a new book by criminologist Jerome G Miller, takes issue with these familiar themes. From the "supermax" prison boom to the movement to try younger and younger offenders as adults, Miller details America's increasingly punitive attitude toward criminals, one he says creates racial polarization and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Miller does a provocative job of disputation, citing a litany of statistics that show we are on our way to imprisoning a staggering percentage of young African-American males. He writes that even as violent crime has dropped, fear of it has risen, particularly in white communities. The gap between perception and reality comes from our habit of relying on the justice system to deal with social and economic problems, enriching the rapidly expanding "business" of corrections, he says.

To be sure, Miller, founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, takes an unabashedly liberal approach. He's the man who, as administrator of the Massachusetts juvenile detention system in 1969, ordered all the state's reform schools closed.

For those well-versed in the criminal justice system, this is an interesting survey that makes the case for racial bias in places heretofore unexamined. Unfortunately, the book sometimes bogs down, which may make it inaccessible for the less sophisticated reader.

In sounding his clarion call, Miller gives unfortunately short shrift to the most important part: proposals for improvement. Writing that his editor asked him to revise this last section of the book because the first draft was "too pessimistic," Miller ends up cheating us with the final product. "The truth is, I don't have many suggestions - and those I do have, aren't likely to be taken," he writes.

In fact, Miller's ideas for change are interesting and beg for more explication. We could begin, he says, by talking less about young black criminals as "animals" and "savages." Family service clinics should be open 24 hours a day to intervene in crises that might otherwise fall on the police. We should create a "G.I. Bill" of sorts for survivors of the drug war - inner-city youths who could benefit from subsidized job training or college education.

Perhaps what Miller has to say would have had more force if he had made better and more extensive use of case histories involving real young offenders. The specific examples he does use point beyond politics, showing what a precious and breakable thing is human potential. And for Miller to hope to accomplish the task of reform that he himself sees as next to hopeless, first he's got to make many more of us care.

Kate Shatzkin courts and prisons for The Sun. Previous to that she studied at Yale Law School and spent much of her nine years as a journalist reporting on legal and social issues.

Pub Date: 06/23/96

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