The 'Superpredator' Scare Revisited

In the mid-nineties, the "superpredator" myth was premised on junk science and inaccurate predictions based on demographics that forecasted an increase in violence by urban teenagers who were "fatherless, Godless, and jobless."
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In my mind's eye I can still picture him. He was just 14 years old, baby-faced and lanky -- in that awkward, post-growth spurt phase of adolescence when a boy is just beginning to take on the features of a man and is outgrowing clothes as fast as his parents can buy them. I remember his smile -- it could light up the room -- and his deepening voice. I also remember the tear that rolled down his face when the jury convicted him of first-degree murder and the anguish that my colleagues and I felt when a judge sentenced him to 45 years in prison.

It was 20 years ago when I first met Derrick Hardaway in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. He, along with his 16-year-old brother, had just been arrested for their roles in the murder of Robert "Yummy" Sandifer. Yummy, nicknamed for his love of cookies, was only 11, but had been the subject of a massive manhunt in the days before his death. A suspect in the murder of a 14-year-old girl, Yummy had been hidden by fellow members of the Black Disciples gang. When the increased heat from the police started to disrupt the gang's drug business, gang higher-ups ordered that Yummy be killed and dispatched the Hardaway boys to do their dirty work. Derrick's role was to lure Yummy to go into his brother's car with a promise that the gang was taking him out of town. Instead, the boys drove Yummy to a pedestrian tunnel on the South Side of Chicago. While Derrick waited in the car, his brother took Yummy into the tunnel where Yummy was shot and killed.

I was reminded of Derrick and all that has transpired in juvenile justice since our first meeting when I saw the excellent Retro Report short documentary The Superpredator Scare produced by Bonnie Bertram and Scott Michels in association with the New York Times. Derrick's case -- which is featured in the film -- helped to launch the so-called "superpredator" myth.

The "superpredator" myth was premised on junk science and inaccurate predictions based on demographics. According to then-Princeton political science professor John DiIulio, an expected increase in the number of urban teenagers who were "fatherless, Godless, and jobless" would result in a bloodbath of violence on America's city streets. These morally impoverished teenagers were different from teens of the past-- they were amoral, feral beings, stone-cold killers, willing to maim, rape and kill without a moment's thought. They were "superpredators."

Although DiIulio did not coin the term until November 1995, a year or so after Derrick's arrest, the term had already gone viral by the time of Derrick's trial and sentencing. Fear of superpredators unleashed a moral panic that led virtually every state to enact laws making it easier to prosecute and sentence juveniles as adults. By the time that criminologists like Barry Krisberg (who is featured in the film) and Frank Zimring called attention to the flaws in DiIulio's theories, it was too late. The virus had already been unleashed.

The Superpredator Scare revisits this sad chapter in our nation's history and documents just how wrong DiIulio's predictions were. Juvenile violent crime, instead of increasing, plummeted to record lows. In the film, Professor DiIulio, now at University of Pennsylvania, issues a mea culpa, admitting that "demography is not fate and criminology is not pure science." DiIulio has even begun to atone for his sins. The film discusses his work on "faith-based" programs for criminal offenders and notes that he even signed an amicus brief in support of the defendants in the recent United States Supreme Court case in which automatic life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders was deemed to be "cruel and unusual punishment."

In the years since the superpredator myth imploded, thinking about juvenile crime and culpability has evolved. According to the United States Supreme Court, it doesn't take rocket science (or even a fMRI of a juvenile's brain) to understand what should have been obvious all along -- that juveniles are Iess culpable for their crimes they commit than adults. In fact, in a series of decisions abolishing the juvenile death penalty and limiting life without parole sentences, the Court has elevated this basic principle to a matter of "common sense."

But it will take much more than the United States Supreme Court to reverse the damage done as a result of the superpredator myth. While the word has all but vanished from our vocabulary, the laws that it inspired have not. If common sense is to make its way back into juvenile justice policy any time soon, the very same state legislatures and governors that passed these draconian laws are going to have to wipe them from the statute books. They should do so now before another generation has to pay for the sins of Professor DiIulio and the other false prophets of doom.

When Derrick was sentenced, his legal team was devastated, feeling as though we had failed him. But as it turned out, Derrick was luckier than most of the teens convicted of violent crimes from his generation. Had he committed his crime just a year later -- after "truth in sentencing" laws were enacted -- he'd have to serve another two decades, making him about 60 years old when released. I'd be in my late seventies. As it is, he is entitled to good-time credits that cut his sentence in half. He should be released sometime in 2016. I hope to be there for him when he gets out.

It's been at least a decade since I last saw Derrick (although we have spoken on the phone). In the Retro Report doc, Derrick appears much as I remember him -- but a hint of gray is starting to creep into his hair. In the past, when he has spoken publicly about his crime, he has always been thoughtful and insightful, genuinely sorry for what happened to Robert and angry at himself for allowing it to happen. As far back as 2007, even Scott Cassidy, the tough-as-nails career Cook County prosecutor who put Derrick behind bars, told AP reporter Sharon Cohen that Derrick -- who has earned his G.E.D. and dozens of college credits -- was "probably going to have a productive life outside of prison."

Seeing and listening to Derrick in the Retro Report doc evoked painful memories of a bygone dark age of juvenile justice and the hopeful promise of better days to come, not only for Derrick, but for the next generation of juvenile offenders.

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