The United States is the only country known to sentence children to die in prison. Like many injustices perpetrated by the criminal legal system, the impact of this draconian practice is felt mostly by Black children, who comprise more than 70 percent of those sentenced to life without parole since 2012. Until we face the uncomfortable reality that many of our policies and practices within the justice system are rooted in racist ideas, America will be destined to remain a global outlier for inhumane treatment of children within communities of color.
Thankfully, last month the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the First Step Implementation Act, a bill that would end life-without-parole sentences for children in the federal system. It is critical that the Biden administration and leaders in both political parties make this bill a priority to begin addressing longstanding racial injustice in our legal system.
For centuries, American laws and institutions have worked in concert with a culture of racism to support a caste system organized by skin color, and children have borne this injustice just as much as adults. One of the most glaring examples of this phenomena surfaced in 1995, when criminologist John DiIulio published an article titled “The Coming of the Super-Predators” in the Weekly Standard, in which he predicted a forthcoming crime wave perpetrated by “fatherless, godless” Black and brown teenagers.
According to DiIulio, these children — whom he labeled “superpredators” — were going to take to the streets to rape, maim and murder. These baseless claims were disproven by the passage of time and our collective experience. Yet they caught fire, part of an ongoing moral panic that dramatically changed the character of youth justice in America.
In the years that followed, policymakers, politicians, prosecutors, police and the media reiterated DiIulio’s theory ad nauseam, amplifying untruths that shifted the center of gravity toward harsher treatment and unwarranted punishments for youths, including life sentences without the possibility of parole. Nearly every state legislature in America made it easier to try young people in the adult criminal legal system. The changes in the law devastated the lives of countless children, families and communities who were saddled with an increased law enforcement presence and the machinery of a criminal legal system that addressed youth crime by ignoring what science and parents know all too well: that children and adults are different — and those differences matter.
None of this should come as a shock. The truth is, it did not take much for the superpredator myth to thrive. America was more than ready to accept that children of color were unworthy of dignity, largely because we are so well-practiced in doing so. A recently released report by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth exposes the roots of our collective mistreatment of children. As detailed in The Origins of the Superpredator: The Child Study Movement to Today, “the superpredator myth reinforced longstanding fears of Black criminality, disguised as developmental science and resting on pseudo-scientific assumptions that certain children are not children at all.”
The report describes the origins of the superpredator ideology, referencing imagery and drawing on stereotypes first cultivated in the 18th and 19th centuries. During those eras, experimental psychologists here and in Europe attempted to establish developmental “norms” by measuring children’s height, weight, head size, arm length and growth rate. Many believed that children could be classified according to racial group, social status and intellectual ability. By importing scientific language to justify pernicious, unfounded assumptions, children of color were frequently identified as subhuman, deviant and dangerous. The birth of what became the juvenile justice system was informed by these notions.
Today we stand at a crossroads. Our society knows how to afford young people grace and compassion, regardless of the crimes they are accused of committing or what they have done. We understand how to give a child the benefit of the doubt, and can accept that their youth makes them different and may shape their conduct. We can readily find proof in the way we talk about and treat white youths.
It is time to extend that same grace and dignity to Black and brown children. That means we commit to seeing children of color for exactly what they are: children. That means dispensing with the worldview that renders them predatory, irredeemable, older than they are, and worthy of being tried as adults and sentenced to die in prison, and standing in solidarity with those who were sentenced to extreme terms as children. And we must mirror that shift in thinking with a dramatic shift in policy.
That starts with ending life without parole as a sentencing option for children, a practice that is unique to the American criminal legal system. Already, 25 states and the District of Columbia have abolished this sentencing option, but it is incumbent on the remaining states to follow suit. The First Step Implementation Act would take some steps to undo this harm — the public and U.S. senators should rally behind it. Through reforms such as these, we can face this country’s history and begin to rectify the injustice that has plagued generations of Black and brown children.
Vincent M. Southerland is assistant professor of clinical law (designate), director of the Criminal Defense and Reentry Clinic, and co-faculty director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law. Follow him on Twitter @vmsoutherland.