Progressive prosecutors from San Francisco to Philadelphia spoke out on a livestream Wednesday, blasting the enduring legacy of the term “superpredator” and highlighting how its racist premise has fed a recent backlash against juvenile justice reforms.
Organized by the nonprofits Fair and Just Prosecution and the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, the Facebook Live discussion included district and state attorneys in Cook County, Illinois; Philadelphia,; Prince George’s County, Maryland, and San Francisco. All have been elected as top law enforcement officials on platforms pledging to dismantle policies that have led to mass incarceration in their communities. The prosecutors’ reforms aim to upend lingering effects of the 1990s, when fears about youth crime promoted a racist and punitive response to young people of color across the country.
Kim Foxx of Cook County; Larry Krasner, of Philadelphia; Aisha Braveboy of Prince George’s County and Chesa Boudin of San Francisco have each paid a price for their efforts to scale back excessively long sentences, life without parole for juveniles and gang enhancements. Their reforms have often enraged local citizens and their own colleagues, with pushback coming from all sides — judges, police unions and even attorneys in their offices.
Xavier McElrath-Bey, co-executive director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, called them heroes in unlikely roles. “They are really the champions that are making a big difference to help undo the remnants of the superpredator theory, but also to humanize the face of our legal system,” he said.
Since political scientist John DiIulio Jr. coined the term “superpredator” in a 1995 magazine article, the word has come to represent an era of panic about young people of color, particularly Black youth. DiIulio was among the public commentators warning of a looming crime wave committed by violent youngsters devoid of empathy, “who pack guns instead of lunches,” he wrote in his fear-mongering, but widely digested work.
“America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ‘super-predators’ — 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,” DiIulio and two other authors wrote in the 1996 book “Body Count: Moral Poverty — and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs.”
The term spread wickedly in the news media. Newspapers and magazines used it 281 times from 1995 to 2000, according to an analysis last year by the Marshall Project. And more than 60% of the time, the word was used without an explanation about its origin or questioning its description of mostly urban youth.
Yet instead of more than 270,000 youth predators roaming the streets in 2010, as DiIulio predicted, violent crime actually declined through most of the 1990s. Since 1996, the juvenile arrest rate has dropped by 75%, according to data from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Still, state laws nationwide made it easier to try children as adults, including sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Black youth have faced the worst consequences of “tough-on-crime” laws of the era.
Braveboy, the top prosecutor in Prince George’s County, said one of her first priorities after being elected in 2018 was to review cases involving individuals who received extremely long sentences. Among them were prisoners given life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, including a man named Eddie Ellis, who had been imprisoned for nearly 30 years.
“What I realized is that even though he committed a very serious offense as a child, he was very valuable to our communities and to our society,” Braveboy said. “When I became state’s attorney, what I understood is that there were many other Eddie Ellises out there who needed someone to see them, to give them an opportunity to have a voice.”
This year, she also advocated for a bill offering parole to juvenile lifers across the state, who are disproportionately Black. Starting in October, Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act will allow courts to resentence people convicted of a serious offense as a juvenile, if they’ve spent a minimum of 20 years in prison and if they’re no longer a public safety threat.
Foxx was motivated to serve in Cook County, in part by her more than 10 years as a juvenile prosecutor in Chicago. During her time filing cases on youth, Foxx said her office was “leaning into racist stereotypes and tropes” about Black children, rather than relying on emerging science about brain development.
That was illustrated by the difference in how prosecutors approached children during child welfare court cases — where professionals made sure to note the trauma children had suffered — and juvenile delinquency proceedings, where that was rarely brought up.
“There was a level of care that we were saying that we were giving to these children on the child protection side, and then the moment that they engaged in behavior that went afoul of our criminal code, we disregarded everything that we knew about them,” Foxx said during Wednesday’s panel discussion.
Foxx said she is working to pare down the eligible offenses for which judges can send minors to the adult justice system.
This year, she also spearheaded a major policy change in Illinois that alters how police can interrogate youth after an arrest. Drawing on evidence that shows juveniles are two or three times more likely than adults to falsely confess to a crime under pressure, Illinois became the first state in the nation to prohibit police from lying and using other deceptive tactics when interrogating a minor.
“If we can’t build the case without lying, then it’s a case that shouldn’t be in the system,” Foxx said.
But while the country’s leading progressive prosecutors are engaged in some successful efforts to overturn decades-old punitive policies, some practices remain more difficult to undo.
A former public defender, Krasner recalled Philadelphia prosecutors using terms like “wildling out” and “wolfpacks” to describe youth in the 1990s. But now, despite low rates of crime, high-profile murders and other violent offenses have jeopardized reform efforts, he said.
Intense backlash and threats to progressive changes underway are ever-present. Opponents of criminal justice reforms have seized on high-profile crimes to push for recalls of progressive prosecutors like San Francisco’s Boudin and Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, who has faced “no confidence” votes from 24 city councils.
The media’s portrayal of crime has also imperiled reforms, Foxx said, describing how a wave of violence in Chicago during the pandemic has prompted cries for tougher crackdowns.
“I would love to believe that we have learned so much from the '90s, but 2021 has proven otherwise,” she said. “When you turn on the news and you see a murder, or you see a carjacking, and there’s a juvenile attached to that, there is an almost instantaneous reversion to the narrative about the superpredator.”