Hunter Hurst III, the founding director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, died on the morning of June 19th in Pittsburgh, PA
June 26, 2012
Hunter Hurst III
May 19, 1938
June 19, 2012
Adapted from Patrick Griffin's Hunter Hurst Retires,
Juvenile and Family Justice Today (2008).
An era came to an end last week with the death of Hunter Hurst III, the founding director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice and one of the most influential voices in the field of juvenile justice research and policy over the last four decades. Hired in 1973 as the director and first employee of NCJJ, the research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Hurst essentially built the place from the ground up - hired its original staff, set up its first quarters at the University of Pittsburgh, conceived its initial research agenda, helped solidify its early funding, and even personally drove his truck down to Washington, D.C. to take custody of the index card-filled card¬board boxes containing what were then the federal government's only records, maintained by the Children's Bureau since the 1920s, on juvenile court case processing nationally. James (Buddy) Howell, former Director of Research and Program Development at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, remembers it well, because he was there. And he helped Hunter load. "That was the beginning of the National Juvenile Court Data Archive," he said. "The rest is history."
Over his nearly 35 years in the office, Hurst guided NCJJ from a bare concept-an independently funded "research and problem-solving center" for juvenile court judges and practitioners, in the words of the introduction to the Center's first annual report, written by NCJJ Board of Fellows Chairman Judge Maurice Cohill-to a nationally renowned research, policy development and technical assistance organization. In the process he touched and inspired many in the field, and straightened out many more. "The National Center for Juvenile Justice was established to develop facts," he once pointed out. And he used his position and prominence, not only as director of an influential research organization but as a speaker and writer, to keep those facts front and center.
To do that, in the words of veteran Judge Eugene Moore, past president of the National Council and a long-time friend, it took "a fighter." Hunter had always been, he said, "a person who insisted that research be independent, and when the research is finished that we use the results to do a better job in juvenile justice, whether it be in the area of family law, delinquency or neglect."
Hurst was a Mississippi native who started his career in Louisiana, as a juvenile probation officer and later intake supervisor in the East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court. His first move into justice research took him to Austin, Texas, where he worked for and eventually came to direct the National Council on Crime and Delinquency's Survey and Planning Center. But his big move came in the fall of 1973-and it was north.
Pittsburgh was to be the location of the fledgling research office being planned by Judge Cohill and others, to fill what Cohill had long seen as "a real void of knowledge and useful social research in the area of juvenile delinquency and the juvenile justice system." The city was not only home to Cohill's Allegheny County Juvenile Court, it had been of crucial historical importance as a training site for juvenile court judges during the early years of the Council. And its many private and corporate foundations were expected to be an important source of ongoing support for the work of the Center.
Still, moving to Pittsburgh was a stretch for a life-long Southerner with a family-and a gamble. Hurst was literally starting from scratch. He had to find and grow his own staff, work out of a series of makeshift offices, stitch together a patchwork of funding support out of disparate contracts, gifts and grants, choose projects with an eye to the future as well as the bottom line, and basically invent NCJJ as he went along. In the words of one of those who saw it all, Judge Cohill, on the occasion of Hurst's retirement: "I cannot possibly express in words my admiration for what he has done for the Center and thereby for the children of America …. Under Hunter's guidance the Center has grown into a nationally recognized source of knowledge, research and technical assistance for judges, court-related personnel and agencies, not to mention academics and the news media."
To the field and the public, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, when juvenile crime was rising and juvenile courts everywhere were under siege, Hurst was an outspoken defender of the core principle of individualized justice in the face of what he saw as misguided, emotional, and often historically ignorant attacks. In summarizing the wave of legislation cutting back the jurisdiction and compromising the foundational principles of juvenile justice in the 1990s-including "statutes that explicitly expose ten-year-olds to the death penalty," as he tartly put it-Hurst declared that "they all have a common theme-childhood ends when you violate the law."
But he was never anything but independent in his views, and forceful in expressing them, and that has always applied to the system's flaws as well as its virtues. The Center's basic mission, he once wrote, was not to support opinions but "to keep reason free." He did his part over the years, directing about forty separate research studies and consulting or advising on many more, speaking and presenting in a variety of forums, and authoring an uncountable number of reports and articles-including a couple of decades of regular "Hunter of Delinquency" columns in the Council's TODAY magazine. Each ran under a photo of him in some outlandish hat-including, in one issue in the mid-1990s, the headdress of some kind of Old Testament patriarch (one he found very useful on his visit to Kuwait), which accompanied a piece containing the memorable sentiment, "The recorded history of man proves beyond a reasonable doubt that, if we skin enough people, we can get them to march to any drummer we want."
But Hurst was serious and consistent in preaching the importance of documenting the effectiveness of juvenile court interventions, as a way of shoring up the erosion of public trust and support for juvenile justice. And early on he warned, "If the decade of the Eighties passes without juvenile and family courts being able to clearly document their effectiveness, the concept of individualized justice will have been tried and found guilty of failure … and sentenced to an eternity in the dead-dogma pile."
His staff's response was to get him a granite paperweight in the shape of a tombstone, bearing the epitaph: Dead Dogma R.I.P.
To those he worked with, Hunter has always been formidable but fun. Kristy Connors, his assistant for the last ten years, calls him "one of the smartest and funniest men I have ever known. Some of my favorite moments have been spent just listening to his advice and stories of his life. There was a true purpose for every story he told you-you came away a better person after listening to him. I also loved on Friday afternoons, after most staff were gone for the weekend, when he would blast his rhythm and blues CDs throughout the office."
"Hunter gave me the gift of knowing that the work we do matters," adds Dorothy Hall, Manager of Membership Services for the National Council. "That the world is counting on us to do our jobs well and ease some suffering along the way."
As befits his stature and that of the organization he built, Hurst retired with plenty of awards to his credit, but the most significant is probably the inaugural James Toner Fellows Award, given by the National Juvenile Court Services Association for a lifetime of service to juveniles, their families and the juvenile justice community. And Jim Toner himself, a longtime friend and admirer, could not have been more pleased: "I very much appreciate knowing E. Hunter Hurst III. Not only am I better for it-so is the country. He made a difference!"