The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The consequences of fearmongering about crime

We’ve seen lots of scaremongering about crime over the past year or so. And while it’s true that crime has gone up in some cities, by most estimates we’ll see that the overall crime rate dropped in the United States in 2015, while the homicide rate ticked up by about 10 percent (but only after reaching 50-year lows).

Why push back against the dire warnings about a “Ferguson effect” and a “national crime wave”? Because this sort of demagoguery affects public policy. We’re in the midst of an important discussion about criminal justice policy and whether a generation of lock-’em-up policies need to be rolled back. We’re in danger of making the same mistakes that got us here.

Yesterday, the Marshall Project published the story of Taurus Buchanan, a Louisiana man who at age 16 was sentenced to life without parole. His crime? He threw a single punch during a brawl that ended another teen’s life. Yes, he took a life. No, that likely wasn’t his intent. Lots of teenagers throw lots of punches over the course of growing up. I certainly did. His just happened to have ended a life. That was in 1994. He’s still in prison today.

As authors Corey Johnson and Ken Armstrong explain, while Buchanan admittedly went to trial at a time when crime rates were much higher than they are today, his sentence was almost certainly the product of a panic over a nonexistent threat.

Taurus Buchanan stood trial in the era of the “superpredator,” the label applied to violent juveniles in the mid-1990s, when states and the federal government passed one tough-on-crime law after another. Today, two decades later, a trio of rulings from the US Supreme Court has peeled back some of those laws, recognizing the folly of assigning equal culpability to adults and kids. In October, the court heard arguments in a fourth case, and how that ruling comes down could determine what happens to hundreds of lifers sent to prison when they were kids. . . .
In January 1996, a Newsweek headline summed up the nation’s fears: “Superpredators Arrive: Should We Cage the New Breed of Vicious Kids?” At the forefront of the lock-’em-up movement was John DiIulio Jr., then a political scientist at Princeton. He foresaw a “ticking crime bomb” of tens of thousands of violent young thugs “on the horizon,” “morally impoverished” kids for whom murder and rape came naturally.
Let the government Leviathan lock them up and, when prudence dictates, throw away the key,” wrote DiIulio in an academic journal; he saw little chance for youths to be rehabilitated “once they have crossed the prison gates.”
Legislators heeded the call. Between 1992 and 1999, 49 states and the District of Columbia made it easier to try juveniles as adults. Some states removed consideration of youth altogether, replacing discretion with compulsory triggers. By 2012, there were 28 states across the nation that were handing out mandatory life-without-parole sentences to juveniles.
One was Louisiana, where Taurus exemplified how mandatory sentencing could render a defendant’s youth meaningless. Once he was charged with second-degree murder, Taurus was automatically tried as an adult because he was over the age of 14. If convicted, he would automatically be sentenced to life without parole.
By 2015, more than 2,230 people in the United States were serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, according to DATA compiled by the Phillips Black Project, a nonprofit law practice that collected information on all 50 states. In 2007, the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization based in Alabama, found that there were 73 cases in which kids were sent away for crimes they committed at age 13 or 14. One was sentenced to life for kidnapping, another for sexual battery, another for taking part in a robbery in which someone was shot but survived.

And as is often the case with ill-considered criminal justice policy, the population affected by the laws is disproportionately black.

The Phillips Black data shows that, with 376, Pennsylvania currently has the most people serving juvenile life sentences. But Louisiana has a higher number of such inmates per capita than any other state. Of the 247 inmates in Louisiana, 199 are African American. In East Baton Rouge Parish, where Taurus stood trial, the racial disparity is even starker: Almost half of the parish population is white, but 32 of the 33 serving juvenile life-without-parole sentences are black.

We essentially condemned and gave up on an entire generation of kids based on little more than their demography. Some kids, the thinking went, are just born bad. It was all nonsense, of course. The “superpredator” threat never materialized, as even DiIulio later conceded. But not before ushering in a wave of new laws in legislatures across America that not only sent kids to prison for life but also imposed long terms for nonviolent crimes and lumped juvenile offenders in with adults.

The 1980s and 1990s were the era where we gave up on the idea of punishment as rehabilitation. Instead, we enthusiastically embraced a more retributive model of justice. Hence the propagation of life, and life without parole sentences even though all the evidence consistently shows that except for psychopaths, most people stop committing crimes after about age 30. A rehabilitative or restorative model of justice would take that into account. A retributive model foresees prisons with geriatric wings.

But children are something else entirely. While most people settle down after 30, teens aren’t finished developing, emotionally, intellectually, physically, you name it. As one of the now-regretful jurors who convicted Buchanan put it in the linked article, “At 16, we just aren’t who we’re going to be.”

The superpredator panic was a dark episode in our country’s recent history, akin to fake scares over crack babies and ritualistic sex abuse. But given that most of the laws passed at the time are still on the books, it isn’t really over, either. (The Supreme Court has struck down life-without-parole for juveniles but has yet to make that decision retroactive.) All of which is worth keeping in mind when people start making apocalyptic predictions about crime and public safety based on little evidence, or evidence that lacks context.

CORRECTION: The Supreme Court only struck down mandatory life without parole for juveniles. A juvenile can still be sentenced to life without parole by a judge. Also the issue in Montgomery v. Alabama, for which the court is expected to issue a decision next term, isn’t abolishing these sentences retroactively, but whether those sentenced before the previous ruling should be given a hearing in which they can present mitigating factors to have their sentences reduced. Thanks to David Menschel for the correction.