As Black History Month draws to a close, we are particularly mindful of the devastating impact of the “superpredator theory,” a racially biased, scientifically deficient idea suggesting that black teenagers are hyper-criminal. This reactionary premise has shaped a generation of youth sentencing laws and contributed to a climate in which it is socially, culturally, and politically acceptable to sentence children to die in prison. The theory has been debunked, but its legacy remains as black youth are sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth, and its residue informs the rhetoric and policies throughout our country.
At the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, we are confronting these disparities as part of our commitment to bring forth greater racial justice through our work. We seek to change our country’s laws, the narrative about young people who go to prison for serious crimes, and the perception that black children are criminals as early as preschool. We want to ensure that no child is ever sentenced to die in prison and that every child has an opportunity for a second chance, regardless of their race, socio-economic background or the crime of which they have been accused.
This is a huge job. Throughout our country’s history, racial animus and bias deeply imbedded in the very foundation of our criminal justice have led to significantly harsher penalties for African Americans accused of crimes than for whites charged with the same offenses. Children have been given no reprieve, whether Emmett Till, bludgeoned and drowned in Money, Mississippi, after he was accused of whistling at a white woman; George Stinney, executed at 14 in by the state of South Carolina (and exonerated decades later); or black teens today who face far stricter punishment and more frequent out-of-school suspensions than their white peers. Sentencing children to life without parole stands as another example of this injustice and highlights the ways that bias can influence science—which we are taught is impartial—and lead to tragic results.
In the early 1990s, academics, politicians, and the media responded with hysteria to upward blips in crimes committed by youth. They warned the country to brace for the rise of a new type of criminal: the superpredator. These “fatherless, godless” monsters would be primarily black teens, and they would kill and create terror with no thought of the consequences.
The predictions never came true, and the country saw historically low levels of crimes committed by youth. The superpredator theory was debunked, and its originator acknowledged he was wrong. But by then, the damage had been done. Responding to the crack epidemic, many states were already enacting harsh mandatory minimum sentences as part of what we now know as the failed “war on drugs.” Following the cry of pundits, they also made it easier to try and convict children as if they were adults. The result was that crimes that had previously been adequately handled in juvenile court now led to long sentences in adult prisons. The numbers of children serving life without parole increased exponentially, with the sentence ultimately imposed upon more than 2,500 children. Overall, approximately 70 percent of people serving JLWOP are people of color. African Americans comprise 60 percent of people with the sentence.
In recent years, court rulings and legislative reforms have created review opportunities for many of these individuals, some of whom have now spent decades in prisons for crimes committed before they could vote or enlist in the military. Throughout the country, many people told as children that they would die in prison are now going home and beginning new lives in free society. Yet, trends suggest that racial disparities persist in the resentencing phase.
This is a reminder that changing laws, while important, isn’t enough. We have to change the hearts and minds of elected officials and Americans. This is what we seek to do by centering the experiences and expertise of members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) in our work.
We also are committed to telling the truth about race and racism, and we will do everything we can to eradicate it from the criminal and juvenile justice systems. We understand this is a huge task, but we also know that we are laboring alongside committed partners like you. The status quo simply isn’t good enough. The denial of Henry Montgomery’s parole last week, after serving 54 years in prison for killing a white law enforcement officer as a child, and being held up as a “model prisoner” by the United States Supreme Court, is just the? most recent—and devastatingly egregious—example of all the work left to be done.
So, as we look back during this Black History Month, we are also looking forward, redoubling our efforts to ensure that the value we place on our children’s lives, and the potential we see in them to grow and change, are not dependent on their race, but on their innate characteristics as children. There is no such thing as a throwaway child, and we are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done. Thank you for standing with us to ensure our policies and practices reflect this truth.