JERRY MILLER DIED in August in Virginia after a long illness. He was 83. Few people in Massachusetts now remember his name, but for several years in the early 1970s he was a controversial public official in the news nearly every day. Some saw him as an innovative reformer; others thought him irresponsible and dangerous to the public. There was evidence for both views.

In 1969, Miller was appointed the first commissioner of the newly created Department of Youth Services by then-Gov. Frank Sargent. The department was created in response to persistent abuse scandals in the Commonwealth’s reform schools, where juvenile offenders had been sent for more than a century.

The need for change was widely accepted. Many delinquent boys and girls were held for long periods on minor charges in large 19th century facilities. Throughout the 1960s, an escalating series of crises gripped these institutions as credible reports emerged of physical and emotional abuse by staff, excessive use of solitary confinement, and the absence of any rehabilitation programs, all in the context of a repressive regimen of rules designed to serve the needs of the institutions rather than to treat the children in their care. Advocacy groups, the press, the Legislature, the public, and the governor saw the situation as a Dickensian nightmare embarrassing the Commonwealth.

As the new commissioner, Jerome Miller’s job was to lead the reform. Miller, a former seminarian, was a professor at Ohio State University when he was interviewed for the commissioner’s job. He had little administrative experience but he was passionate about reform and able to articulate a vision of a humane juvenile corrections system. Once in office, he promulgated new policies, reduced isolation, shortened lengths of stay, did away with prison-like uniforms, and attempted to introduce small-scale therapeutic communities into each of the facilities.

After about a year, Miller concluded that his efforts were not working. Many employees undermined his reforms. They were determined to wait him out on the assumption that the changes would not last. Real reform was not taking hold in the institutions. This realization led Miller to a fateful decision: If the reform schools would not change, he would destroy them.

Commissioner Miller abandoned his effort at incremental reform and declared war on the institutions within his department. He led a media campaign to publicize highly charged, sometimes lurid, stories of abuse and exploitation of children. He put himself in a position unheard of for a government manager: he was a highly public, no-holds-barred critic attacking his own organization. He became increasingly adamant and the DYS community became increasingly polarized. The tension mounted and it led to one of the most dramatic moments in the history of public administration.

On the morning of January 15, 1972, Miller led a long caravan of cars down Route 9 in Westborough and on to the grounds of the Lyman School which had been there since 1848 and was the first public reform school in the United States. Miller ordered the release of the children and packed them into cars for a drive to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. There, Miller and his team spent several weeks deciding which kids to send home, which to place in foster care or new group homes. Some of them ran away. This event created an enormous burst of energy for what came to be called “deinstitutionalization.”  Advocates for reform urged more of the same in the Department’s other institutions. The emptying of Lyman School also created enormous backlash among police officers, prosecutors, judges, and legislators who were appalled by the prospect of previously institutionalized delinquents roaming the streets. There was also the highly irregular reality of state employees being paid to work at an empty institution.

Miller’s dramatic action splintered the consensus supporting institutional reform. Opposition grew but, in the face of criticism, he doubled down. Without legislative authorization, Miller quickly closed down the Commonwealth’s other large reform schools, putting more than 700 juvenile offenders back into their communities. He also ramped up the rhetoric in support of his policy, dismissing his critics as bigoted reactionaries who could not accept an innovative community-based system of care for young offenders. Miller was unmoved by the critics’ argument that such an alternative system existed only in skeletal form, if at all. His plainly expressed view was that “anything, including nothing, is better than the institutions.”

In January 1973, after 38 months in office, Miller resigned as commissioner and left the state. The Boston Globe, in a generally favorable review of his tenure, recognized the ambiguity: “He cut corners and he hurt feelings and he ignored conventional practices and civil service regulations.” DYS was on the defensive but, ironically, Miller’s reforms had captured wide attention and the “Massachusetts Experiment” became the focus of policy makers and researchers across the nation. No state had tried to run a juvenile justice system without institutions. The prospect of doing away with them appealed to many experts and alarmed others. Practitioners often applauded the move away from reform schools, but decried the loss of organizational competence arising from Miller’s impulsive, take-no-prisoners style.

I was among this last group when I became commissioner of DYS in 1979. The new community-based system had continued to develop, but had not yet attained the size and stability needed to cope with the number and complexity of young people sent to DYS by the courts. Worse, the department had little credibility with important constituencies in the Legislature, law enforcement, and judiciary who saw DYS as a revolving door, indifferent to the public safety risks presented by juvenile offenders.

I met Miller when we were on a panel together 10 years after the closing of the Lyman School. I praised his goals but criticized his methods which, I thought, had left an enormous vacuum in the ability of DYS to serve its mission. Miller was disdainful of me. It was clear he thought I was a dull bureaucrat unable to grasp his high purpose and his historic achievement. I didn’t much like him.

But the system continued to evolve. By the time a dozen years passed, DYS had built a new, credible, non-institutional array of juvenile corrections programs that have endured. The “Massachusetts Model” was studied extensively and became recognized as the most effective and humane approach that exists in the United States. It was a quick, radical, and successful departure from a policy that had lasted more than a century.

Miller’s death prompts a host of questions: Could reorganization have been done without him? Could it have happened in a more orderly way? These are questions of real import in the world of public policy. What is the right approach when a large public organization ceases to serve the goals for which it was created? By training and impulse, public administrators seek change incrementally. They are builders, not destroyers. Miller was not an administrator. He was a bomb-thrower whom fate vested with great administrative power.

The Massachusetts juvenile justice system was destroyed and recreated in not much more than a decade. It all happened 40 years ago. Since that time, how many other large public organizations have struggled fitfully to implement and sustain obviously needed change? Our institutions housing individuals with developmental disabilities have lasted way too long. The mental health system is a persistent embarrassment. Generations of children have passed through ineffective urban public schools. What should happen to public institutions that persistently fail? What would Miller do? He would have no patience for it. I now think he was right.

Edward M. Murphy was commissioner of the Department of Youth Services from 1979 to 1985, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health from 1985 to 1989, and head of the Massachusetts Health and Educational Facilities Authority from 1989 to 1995. He has been in the private sector ever since, currently serving as executive chairman of the board of Civitas Solutions, one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities.