The Superpredator Myth Did a Lot of Damage. Courts Are Beginning to See the Light.
"By James Forman Jr. and Kayla Vinson
Mr. Forman is the faculty director of Yale’s Law and Racial Justice Center, where Ms. Vinson is the executive director.
Over the past decade, many Americans have come to agree that we lock up too many people, for too long, in miserable conditions. But despite a growing political movement against prisons, imprisonment rates remain stubbornly high, and the United States is still the world leader in incarceration. To meaningfully shrink the prison system will require states to do something few have wanted to do: reduce some of the extremely long sentences imposed in the 1990s.
Revisiting lengthy sentences, especially for people who committed acts of violence, has always been considered one of the third rails of criminal justice reform. But two recent developments in Connecticut — one from the State Supreme Court, the other from the Board of Pardons and Paroles — offer important examples of state officials overcoming this reluctance.
In January the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the 60-year sentence imposed on Keith Belcher, a Black teenager, for sexual assault and armed robbery committed when he was 14. Mr. Belcher was sentenced in 1997, at the height of the superpredator panic. The brainchild of a political science professor, John J. DiIulio Jr., the superpredator theory argued that America in the 1990s faced an unrivaled new crime threat: a large and growing generation of unusually violent teenagers. Tapping into the country’s long history of racialized fear, he argued that these superpredators would disproportionately be Black boys.
His claim quickly found a ready audience. The media, police and politicians lapped it up. Unfortunately for Mr. Belcher, so did Judge Michael Hartmere, who said this at Mr. Belcher’s sentencing hearing:
Professor DiIulio of Princeton University has coined the term “superpredator,” which refers to a group of radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters who assault, rape, rob and burglarize. Mr. Belcher, you are a charter member of that group. You have no fears, from your conduct, of the pains of imprisonment, nor do you suffer from the pangs of conscience.
Judge Hartmere then imposed a sentence that could have kept Mr. Belcher incarcerated until his mid-70s. This is where the story might have ended, as it too often does. The convicted person goes to a prison cell, appeals and loses. The system moves on.
But Mr. Belcher got lucky. Because the trial judge explicitly cited a theory that had been proved wrong (in 2001, Professor DiIulio acknowledged as much), Mr. Belcher’s court-appointed attorneys, Natalie Olmstead and Alexandra Harrington, challenged the sentence on the grounds that it was based on “materially false information.” What could be more false, they asked, than a theory widely disavowed, including by its own author?
The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed and, to its credit, addressed the racist underpinnings of the superpredator theory. The court pointed out that “at the time that adolescence was being recognized as a distinct developmental stage for white children, many Black children remained enslaved and were viewed as subhuman.” Racism’s logic was that Black children didn’t need to be protected; they needed to be worked, disciplined and punished. Mr. Belcher’s 60-year sentence, the court concluded, could be understood only in the context of that history and its long afterlife.
The superpredator myth infected our legal system even when judges didn’t invoke it openly. Kristin Henning, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of “The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth,” told us: “Looking back to cases from the 1990s, you won’t see too many judges use the word ‘superpredator,’ but it was definitely in the air. You can see it in the juvenile transfer laws that allowed young people to be tried as adults and in the long sentences many teenagers got. They all stem from that same idea that Black children must be feared and controlled. The Belcher opinion rejects that way of thinking.”
As extreme as Mr. Belcher’s punishment was, it fits into a larger pattern: Excessively long sentences are pervasive in the American criminal justice system. In 2015 one in six prisoners in state prisons — more than in any other country — had been incarcerated for at least 10 years. In 2020 the Sentencing Project reported that more than 200,000 U.S. prisoners were serving life sentences, exceeding the entire prison population of 1970. Almost half of those lifers were Black. What are the pathways to relief in those cases?
In a few jurisdictions, prosecutors can review excessive sentences; in some others, judges can. But for most prisoners, the only source of relief is the state parole board.
That’s why it’s notable that even as the Belcher decision repudiated an ill-founded, punitive approach to teenage crime, Connecticut’s parole board adopted a humane alternative. The board considered the emerging brain science research showing that teenagers and young adults often lack the ability to weigh the long-term consequences of their actions yet are capable of change with age. In December 2021 and January 2022, the board commutedthe sentences of 12 men who had committed crimes before they turned 25.
The first one to get relief was Michael Cox, a Black man serving a 75-year sentence for his role in two murders, aiding and abetting a manslaughter and an assault with a firearm that occurred when he was 19 years old. The teenage Mr. Cox was impulsive and quick to resort to violence. The 49-year-old Mr. Cox, appearing before the parole board, was a man eager to be involved in anti-violence work with young people after leaving prison.
What happened in the intervening decades? Mr. Cox signed up for every rehabilitative program he could find, earned his high school diploma and college credits, worked as a certified nurse assistant taking care of other incarcerated people and mentored younger men in his prison.
Like Mr. Cox, the 11 other men to receive commutations committed violent crimes as teenagers or young adults; most were in for murder. Like Mr. Cox, most had spent more years behind bars than they had lived before their crime. And like Mr. Cox, most had grasped at whatever rehabilitative or educational opportunities came their way.
Why are such commutations so rare? While some state legislatures constrained or eliminated parole in the 1990s, in most states the parole board still has enormous power to offer second chances to incarcerated people. But most parole boards — including for many years, Connecticut’s — have refused to do so. As the criminal justice scholars Kevin R. Reitz and Edward E. Rhine note, parole board members are risk-averse political appointees with little job security. “Members or entire boards,” they write, “have been forced to resign after a single high-profile crime committed by a released prisoner.” Typically, parole boards are most hostile toward those who have committed crimes of violence, often refusing to consider anything other than the offense itself during rote hearings that morph into decades of denials.
That’s why it matters so much that the Connecticut parole board has begun to chart a new course. Since more than 50 percent of people in state prison are serving sentences for violent crimes, we will never end the scourge of mass incarceration if we write off this group. Since decades of research have proved that older people are rarely violent, extremely long sentences can almost never be justified on public safety grounds. And since some incarcerated people have found ways to change and thrive in conditions few of us could tolerate, the system should have pathways to recognize their efforts.
The decisions of Connecticut’s Supreme Court and its Board of Pardons and Paroles offer hope to a generation locked up during the hyperpunitive 1990s. They remind us that nobody should be sentenced to death, whether by execution or death in prison. If we are ever to undo the ravages of mass incarceration, we will need many more decisions like them."
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