The Superpredator Myth: It’s Still Alive Behind Bars

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Photo by Rory via Flickr

There is a strange parallel between the history of the so-called “superpredator” and the conception of “dope fiends.”

Not too long ago, “superpredator” became the favored word of some criminologists to describe the emergence of what was considered a dangerous threat to public safety in the U.S. A ruthless criminal concealed within the body of an adolescent male, he was often black, and his habitat was the inner city.

Violent criminal conduct was a unique, and terrifying, behavioral characteristic of these young beasts. When captured, the mantra “Adult Time for Adult Crime” supported sentencing them as if they were just as culpable as their fully matured counterparts.

Similarly, a much older phrase, “dope fiend” came back into use to describe those superpredators immersed in the world of illicit drugs. The stereotype was just as brutal: He (usually a he) was conceived to be a hedonistic, nihilistic hybrid, usually having dark skin, who sometimes spoke with a Hispanic accent.

Committing crimes to support his narcotic addition was a favorite pastime. And just as in the case of violent superpredators, he was the target of the “tough on crime” policies that sent so many young black men to prison in the 1980s and 1990s for long stretches of confinement.

Fast forward to 2019.

Now, there’s a broad consensus among criminologists that the so-called superpredator is better understood as a youth whose crimes more often than not reflect transient immaturity rather than irreparable corruption, and whose skin complexions encompass the color spectrum. The U.S. Supreme Court and last year, the Washington State Supreme Court, relied upon the attendant neurodevelopmental research findings to invalidate some of the harshest penalties for the kinds of juvenile offenders once written off as unreformable superpredators.

Even heinous crimes committed by young people are now viewed through a prism that mitigates their culpability.

I was once in the superpredator category myself. I received a life-without-parole sentence for my involvement in a murder at age 14—a crime that I have regretted ever since.

But the courts’ new approach gave me—and many others in similar situations—a path for hope. My sentence was amended retroactively, and I was given an opportunity to be freed. I received mercy.

But the stereotyped “dope fiend” version of the superpredator still stunts the lives of thousands of inmates in U.S. prisons today who were sentenced for crimes committed when they were young—despite a growing body of research that has made that version anachronistic.

For one thing, opioid addiction is no longer, sadly confined, to the poor young person of color.

We all realize that the opioid epidemic in America has destroyed the lives of soccer moms and rural white teenagers just as much as it has youths in the inner city.

The broad consensus that dealing with this crisis requires a public health approach rather than criminal justice machinery has spread to policymakers at federal, state and local levels.

But not to prisons.

All too often, these ameliorative approaches are only being implemented at the front end of the criminal justice system. Unlike former superpredators such as myself, mercy has yet to be applied retroactively to the sentences of opioid addicts imprisoned while they were young. Their lives are untouched by the contemporary recognition that their crimes were not simply a product of free will, opportunity and a rational calculus.

The case of Corey Irish provides one illustration of why such former drug “superpredators” should receive relief—notwithstanding the fact that their crimes occurred long before overdosed bodies began to pile up in refrigerator trucks from West Virginia to Ohio.

Drugstore Robbery

Late in the evening of April 23, 2007, in Tacoma, Wash., Daniel Garibay was just about to turn away from the customer he finished serving through the drive‑through window at Walgreen’s pharmacy when he heard a loud thump on the floor behind him.

He would never forget the sound.

“I mean, I’d never heard something like that,” he testified, according to trial transcripts.

The sound was Corey Irish landing on the floor after he leapt over the counter. The young man immediately began demanding drugs by their generic and non-generic names.

“When he first jumped in, at first he asked for Percocet, Oxycodone, and Vicodin…then it seemed like he just wanted anything,” Garibay told the jury during Irish’s trial in Pierce County Superior Court.

He was stunned when Irish pulled out two trash bags and told Garibay to fill them up. According to Garibay, “They looked like forceflex bags. He told me which drugs he wanted, and then he asked me to put them in the bags after I opened the cabinet.”

Meanwhile, Irish’s accomplice, who stood guard over the other two employees after flashing a gun in his waist line and corralling them into the stockroom, kept apologizing.

“I’m sorry I have to do this, you know…Just be quiet,” Jeanelle O’Dell recounted the accomplice saying as he made her kneel on the floor.

Mike Staten also recalled, “He kept apologizing for what he was doing, saying he wanted to be in and out.”

Back in the pharmacy, Garibay had moved on to filling up a third garbage bag that Irish made him get after the two that Irish brought with him were filled to capacity. Ten minutes elapsed from the loud thump Irish made when he landed behind the counter to when he finally lifted the bags filled with childproof bottles, summoned his accomplice from the stockroom, and began to leave with his haul of prescription narcotics.

The police arrived before the men escaped from the scene. Irish was arrested with the bags of OxyContin, Percocet, Valium and Vicodin, and everything in between. His accomplice fled empty-handed and was never apprehended by the police.

During the closing arguments of Irish’s trial, Sunni Ko, the deputy prosecuting attorney, rhetorically asked the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, again, what do you think he was going to do with three bags of drugs? Do you think that he was going to keep them in his room and have it for personal use for the rest of his life?”

The notion that an addiction to prescription medication was powerful enough to make anyone do such a thing stretched belief. His intent was obviously to distribute the pills for profit, Ko argued to the jury.

The jury agreed.

At sentencing, Irish, who met the DSM-IV-TR criteria for opioid dependency, explained to the judge, “We wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. We just wanted some pills. And besides…I do pop pills, constantly. That’s why—not making excuses on any of that—but I mean, I do have a problem.

“Whether it was one bottle or 100 bottles I took, it was going to be a robbery anyway, so I mean, a thousand apologies, especially to the victims.”

His mother, a high school teacher, told the judge how she had tried to convince her son to get treatment before the crime occurred. His aunt, an assistant mayor, also implored the court, writing, “Corey needs the opportunity to enter a program where he can receive help for the drug problem and counseling to get to the root of his problems.”

The judge empathized with Irish’s family, but she had no sympathy for Irish.

He was sentenced to spend the next quarter century in the care of the Washington Department of Corrections—a prison term that exceeds the minimum sentence a defendant would serve for committing premeditated murder.

The Paradigm Shift

Criminal justice officials in Ohio probably would not be surprised upon hearing that someone tried to steal garbage bags filled with prescription pills from a pharmacy in a robbery. There, the opioid epidemic is so devastating that the foster care system has been overwhelmed by children who have become the detritus of addicted parents.

Tom Synan, Newtown Ohio’s Police Chief, has come to believe that addiction should no longer be considered a crime.

“It took 70,000 people to die before society shifted its opinion on opioid addiction,” he observed during a symposium sponsored by The Washington Post, headlined Addiction in America, The New War on Drugs.

Experts on substance use disorders who have tracked the etiology of opioid addiction would also see a familiar theme with respect to how Irish went from being a supervisor at a fabrication company to the perpetrator of a drug store robbery.

After suffering a back injury in 2006, he was prescribed OxyContin during a period when pharmaceutical companies where downplaying its addictive properties, financial incentives led doctors to over-prescribe opioid pain medications, and the naive failed to perceive the signs of misuse and abuse going on around them because addicts did not fit the stereotypical image of a dope fiend.

They resided in the heartland.

They worked and went to church on Sundays.

They weren’t dark-skinned and had no accent.

During the 12 years that have elapsed since Irish was confined, legions of young men and women went from pilfering their parents’ pills when they were teenagers and snorting them with friends to shooting heroin. Nurses have lost their jobs for stealing narcotics from their elderly patients. Countless men and women have lost custody of their children.

Let us pause for a moment to reflect on the crack epidemic, the policies it generated, and the character attacks on the addicts. Whether America learned from these mistakes or the socio-demographic and white complexion of many contemporary opioid addicts brought enlightenment with respect to this latest drug epidemic, I can only guess.

In any case, the criminal justice system is already bursting at the seams due to mass incarceration. It therefore comes as no surprise to me that officials have lost the appetite to use demonization and imprisonment as expedients for dealing with the opioid epidemic—especially since the problem exists within their own communities.

I can imagine policymakers deliberating about establishing drug courts, implementing diversion programs, and funding more treatment centers now that a drug epidemic is not confined to the inner city.

“These people need help. They have a disease. We can’t just lock them up and throw away the key,” I can hear them saying.

Left Out

But those still confined before these sentiments affected the criminal justice system are seemingly left out of such discussions.

Recall that retribution was warranted because it was believed that these people were driven solely by their criminogenic needs. Their addictions, in and of itself, manifested they had little interest in being a part of law-abiding society.

But that was the past. The scientific consensus that opioid addiction is a disease undermines the deterrent and retributive purposes of punishment in these cases, leaving only incapacitation for rehabilitation.

Regardless, those confined before this paradigm shift have got nothing coming. Far too many of them present unsympathetic images due to their current convictions and dark skin complexions.

But make no mistake about it: If 10,000 soccer moms were languishing in prison for pulling capers to obtain prescription pain medication, lawyers would be battling to get them executive clemency or, alternatively, judicial relief based on arguments that these new socio-medical findings satisfy the legal standard for newly discovered evidence and warrant resentencing hearings to present mitigating factors in support of reducing their prison sentences.

Jeremiah Bourgois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

That said, it remains a mystery how many years will pass before policymakers provide relief to those locked away in penitentiaries because their disease drove them to commit crimes to secure more—and more—prescription pain medication.

Until then, Corey Irish will continue serving out a sentence that exceeds the minimum term that is imposed on those who commit premeditated murder.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to The Crime Report, and a recent graduate of Adams State University, where he earned an interdisciplinary degree in criminology and legal studies. Since 1992, he has been confined in Washington State for crimes that he committed at age fourteen. He is currently petitioning for release. Readers who wish to support him are invited to sign up here. He welcomes comments.

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