In 1996,  John DeIulio, then a Princeton professor, issued a dire threat:  “America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ‘superpredators’ — radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more pre-teenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.”  The term “superpredator” spread.  It was used by politicians from both parties to justify harsh new laws against juveniles. Then First Lady Hillary Clinton was among the many public figures who used this phrase, citing young people with “no conscience, no empathy, we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

“Bring them to heel.”

While DeIulio wasn’t specific about the race of these alleged “superpredators,” there were racial undertones that resulted in real-world racial disparities. Two years later, Frank Gilliam of UCLA published a study entitled “The Superpredator Script” where he reinforced the racial stereotype — that Black and Brown youth were to blame. Gilliam’s study found that people were more afraid, and more likely to support harsher punishments for youth, when exposed to a mug shot of an African-American or Hispanic youth offender for just five seconds (in a 15-minute newscast).  His conclusion:  “Right now, in the minds of the viewing public, youth crime is as much about race as it is about crime.”

Of course, history and facts have proven these warnings to be baseless. Violent crime has declined. No wave of “superpredators” ever emerged. DeIulio has issued an apology of sorts for his false prophecy. In fact, once he started to work with actual young people, he began to advocate for treatment, prevention, and support instead of punishment. Hillary Clinton also recently admitted that she “regretted” her use of the term.

Still the automatic association that so many Americans possess—be they explicit or implicit—between race and crime are remarkably resilient.  Fourteen years after Gilliam’s study, Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University found that simply bringing to mind a Black juvenile offender led white participants to view all juveniles as more similar to adults in their inherent culpability, and to express more support for severe sentencing. “Remarkably,” she wrote, “this was true for both people who were low in prejudice and those who were high in prejudice and for both liberals and conservatives.”

A recent study by Phillip Goff of UCLA tells us that police officers routinely think of Black youths as four to five years older than they actually are and treat them accordingly.  He found that, unlike white males who are often excused for their actions well into their 20s, Black children receive no such grace period or benefit of the doubt.  Instead, he said, “Black children may be perceived as innocent only until deemed suspicious.”

As the “superpredator” fever waned, so has the use of excessive sentences for youth, including the use of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP). A national consensus against JLWOP has emerged as the vast majority of the country has abandoned it.  

JLWOP map

In ruling against the use of mandatory life without parole for juveniles, the Supreme Court and state courts and have cited the growing body of research that tells us adolescent brains are different from adults.  Youth do not have the same ability as adults to control their impulses or to understand the longer-term impacts and consequences of their actions.  Most teenagers are capable of being rehabilitated and the vast majority will “age out” of crime by the time they reach their mid-20s.  Legislators, District Attorneys and the courts are increasingly recognizing that, given our growing understanding of adolescent brain physiology, sentencing teenagers to die in prison serves no deterrent purpose, does not increase public safety, is exorbitantly costly for taxpayers, and is, indeed, cruel and unusual punishment.

But there remain over 2,000 individuals in prison today who are still serving life in prison for crimes they committed as youths. Most were handed down during the height of the “superpredator” panic in the 1990s. Philadelphia alone accounts for almost 10% of all of these sentences nationally, and 80% of youth sentenced to JLWOP sentences there are Black.

The rise in JLWOP in Philly

The Supreme Court has mandated that all individuals who were sentenced to mandatory LWOP sentences as juveniles receive a new hearing and an opportunity to make their case for eventual release.  When these cases are reviewed, decision-makers should consider the legacy of the “superpredator” myth and the latest research on adolescent brains. The “superpredator” myth may have been discredited, but the racial biases at its core continue to persist.