The Superpredator Myth, 20 Years Later

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The New York Times reported this week on the "superpredator" myth, which 20 years ago led nearly every state in the country to expand laws that removed children from juvenile courts and exposed them to adult sentences, including life without parole.

A documentary by Retro Report, The Superpredator Scare, tells the story of how influential criminologists in the 1990s issued predictions of a coming wave of "superpredators": "radically impulsive, brutally remorseless" "elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches" and "have absolutely no respect for human life." Much of this frightening imagery was racially coded.

In 1995, John DiIulio, a professor at Princeton who coined the term "superpredator," predicted that the number of juveniles in custody would increase three-fold in the coming years and that, by 2010, there would be "an estimated 270,000 more young predators on the streets than in 1990." Criminologist James Fox joined in the rhetoric, saying publicly, "Unless we act today, we're going to have a bloodbath when these kids grow up."

These predictions set off a panic, fueled by highly publicized heinous crimes committed by juvenile offenders, which led nearly every state to pass legislation between 1992 and 1999 that dramatically increased the treatment of juveniles as adults for purposes of sentencing and punishment.

As DiIulio and Fox themselves later admitted, the prediction of a juvenile superpredator epidemic turned out to be wrong. In fact, violent juvenile crime rates had already started to fall in the mid-1990's. By 2000, the juvenile homicide rate stabilized below the 1985 level.

DiIulio and Fox were among the criminologists who submitted an amicus brief in support of the petitioners in Miller v. Alabama. In Miller and its companion case, Jackson v. Hobbs, EJI argued that the mandatory life-without-parole sentences imposed on 14-year-olds Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The criminologists' amicus brief summarized extensive research data demonstrating that "the predictions by the proponents of the juvenile superpredator myth" were wrong. "Yet," it concluded, "the superpredator myth contributed to the dismantling of transfer restrictions, the lowering of the minimum age for adult prosecution of children, and it threw thousands of children into an ill-suited and excessive punishment regime." The research shows that these new laws "had no material effect on the subsequent decrease in crime rates," and yet almost all of these laws remain on the books. And while the Supreme Court in Miller struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children, thousands of kids remain sentenced to die in prison as states fight retroactive application of the decision to sentences imposed during the height of the superpredator panic.

States facing the mounting costs of excessive sentences imposed on children have begun to reform laws enacted in response to the superpredator myth. But children as young as ten continue to be exposed to adult prosecution in the United States; 10,000 children are housed in adult jails and prisons on any given day in America; and nearly 3000 American children have been sentenced to die in prison.