After ‘Superpredators,’ Five Studies That Explain Teen Sentencing Overhaul


Princeton political scientist John Dilulio dubbed them superpredators: murderous teenagers who could commit heinous acts of violence without feeling a trace of guilt. “They fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment,” Dilulio wrote in 1995. “They live by the meanest code of the meanest streets.” He believed the U.S. was on track toward a scourge of youth superpredator violence, precipitated by troubling demographic shifts and a perceived morality deficit. For all the fear and frenzy, the teen violence apocalypse never arrived, says Pacific Standard magazine. The exact opposite happened. Juvenile violent crime rates that were forecast to double instead dropped by more than 50 percent, and advances in modern neuroscience began to complicate the prevailing superpredator caricature. “Thank God we were wrong,” DiIulio said. “I'm sorry for any unintended consequences.”

Those unintended consequences litter federal and state justice systems. Kids as young as 11 still are being tried as adults, and many mandatory-minimum sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and ’90s remain on the books. The mythical superpredator continues to cast a long shadow over politics, but a reform movement, helped by the Supreme Court, has made major strides: The high court banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders, prohibited juvenile life without parole sentences for non-homicide offenses, and nixed state laws requiring mandatory life without parole for juveniles, regardless of the crime. Pacific Standard discusses five studies that “explain why the movement to overhaul juvenile sentencing laws has been picking up steam—and what could still slow it down.”

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