The recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Montgomery v. Louisiana (which made its previous Miller v. Alabama ruling (regarding life terms for juveniles retroactive), shined a harsh light on the systems which utilized such practices, for it comes from the most conservative (and frankly, repressive) Supreme Courts in decades.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Pennsylvania, the state with the most juvenile lifers -not in the U.S. only – but in the world! How did this state of affairs come to be? Are kids in Pennsylvania somehow more sinister, more vile, more evil than in other states? Are they more fiendish than any other youth population on the planet Earth?
It simply cannot be so. Such a suggestion flies in the face of logic.
Why then, have juveniles suffered so grievously in Pennsylvania, for so many long years and decades?
Initially, it should be noted that, unlike many other states, in Pennsylvania, there exists no minimum age that restricts a juvenile from the cold winds of the criminal statutes, thus, they are exposed to the same furies as sustained by adults -as evidenced by the times served by men in the PA penal system, who are entering their fifth decade (i.e., over 50 years -and counting) in prisons. The writer has personal knowledge of a man who was housed with him in the infirmary, who has been continuously confined for over 50 years, is elderly, and incontinent. His name is Robert Nash (I hope he is not offended that I am outing him here) He is a sharp, witty, engaging fellow – but his body is shot.
But there may have been a time when such a man, captured in the bloom of his youth, was an outlier. Surely. Right? Well, not quite. In the 1990s, there came a rush of youth into the state systems around the country, in part occasioned by the bipartisan maneuvers of the Bill Clinton presidency. I will not here restate that case, for legal scholar Michele Alexander, in her recent blockbuster, The New Jim Crow, has done so admirably, with class and grace.
What we have not reexamined however has been the work of scholars who worked to buttress the burgeoning specter of mass incarceration. Here, I write of people like Dr. John Dilulio, who was among the first to launch the “Super Predator” myth that flashed across TV screens nationwide; the philosophical equivalent of ‘the sky is falling’, pumped into the national neural net – erupting into a mad political chorus that congealed and solidified into public policy. A policy of mass repression that targeted kids for decades, consigning them to rural holes of disorientation, disease, destruction and death -for decades.
In his spectacular Nov. 27th, 1995 article in The Weekly Standard, the very title told the tale:
“THE COMING OF THE SUPER-PREDATORS.”. In this work, Dilulio cites prosecutors, convicts, cops and others to support his essential premise: that the children of today (i.e., the ‘90s), are far more fiendish, more brutal, more murderous, more inhuman than any other generation that life has ever generated. In essence, he argued, they are a breed apart.
Other conservative scholars rushed to co-sign his observations – as did, ominously, neoliberal politicians – eager to make their mark. This nexus created a firestorm, a bipartisan monsoon of political opinion that swept a generation of youth into the jaws of Hell. They deserved nothing -for, ala Dilulio, they were ‘Super Predators’.
Scholars like Dilulio used instinct, intuition, impression, world view and bias to craft something that didn’t exist in Nature: kids who were monstrous mutations of those who had gone before.
And politicians like then- DA Lynne Abraham, and her predecessor, Edward G. Rendell, used such scholastic cover to craft a malicious war against children. For they were children – yes – but not their children; and certainly not children like them.
They were children of a lesser god; beings of another order of mankind – Homo Destructus, perhaps –those who needed to be locked up forever.
Hillary Clinton joined this malevolent company, and as Alexander has documented recently, “she too damned these “super predators” (her words) to life in cages, for (again, in her words),”they’re not just gangs of kids anymore”.
None of Dilulio’s predictions came to pass. Indeed, the polar opposite was true. Not only have we not seen “the rise of the ‘so-called “Super-Predators”, but crime rates fell to their lowest rates in half a century.
In turn, Dilulio was as wrong as two left feet.
There arose a saying in the philosophical community – “I don’t know, you don’t know, and neither does Dilulio.”
Predictions, it appears, are better left to soothsayers.
Meanwhile, hundreds, and then thousands of children were consigned to adult hellholes. Some went mad. Some were monstrously assaulted. Some were savaged by older men (and, one mustn’t forget, given the scandals that arose out of Florida’s since-discontinued boot camps, these older men were often state officials.)
But all were traumatized by a theory sold by a scholar, who got the analysis wrong, the predictions wrong, the numbers wrong – and his science wrong.
But the politics were right –far right.
And children paid an obscene price.