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Debunking the ‘Superpredator’ Myth

Report Suggests Lock ‘Em Up Mentality Counterproductive to Public Safety

by Kevin Bliss

The Sentencing Project of Washington, D.C. issued a report in May of 2021 titled “A Second Look at Injustice.” This report stated that the justice system should have goals of rehabilitation and redemption as well as conviction and incarceration. Reforms to the system needed to be forward-looking as well as backward. It suggested that the criminal punishment code be adopted to where no sentence for any crime exceed 20 years except in unusual circumstances. Its focus was in recommending resentencing for anyone who had served at least 15 years and had shown the potential for change while incarcerated.

This report opened with newly passed legislation in state and federal government that pursued “second look” sentencing guidelines, indicating the proactive sentencing measure’s current support and success. It listed several well-known proponents for the get-tough-on-crime laws of the 80s and the initial movement to mass incarceration. It expounded on each one’s regrets in their original stances to criminal sentencing. All stated that they now better understood the misperception and fallacy that extreme sentencing was a productive crime deterrent.

Princeton University Professor John Dilulio Jr. who had coined the term ‘superpredator’ said he did so in an attempt to warn the populace of the dangers of youths of color suffering from “moral poverty ... of growing up surrounded by deviant, delinquent, and criminal adults in abusive, violence-ridden, fatherless, Godless, and jobless settings.” His analysis came under attack by leading scholars of that time. And, although this projected tidal wave of youthful crime never came to fruition, nonetheless, politicians like Bob Dole and Hilary Clinton picked up Dilulio’s phrase and used it to drive extreme sentencing measures into legislation.

The report stated that as of now, there are over 200,000 people serving life sentences in American prisons. That is more than all the people in prison in the United States in 1970 combined. It estimated that one in every five incarcerated Black men is serving a life sentence.

Prison population jumped 800% between 1970 and 2010. Many of those people over the age of 50. The report contended that this was due to extreme sentencing on the front end of criminal justice system and a lack of discretionary release mechanisms on the back. One of those release mechanisms, clemency, accounted for about 350 early releases each year in the 1940s. Now, as the prison population explodes, these releases have declined. President Trump signed only 94 clemency releases while in office, and most of those were cases that were politically connected.

One such front end issue discussed in the report was the disparity in how the criminal justice system defines adults as compared to behavioral scientists. The age-crime curve shows that most criminal activity peaks around person's late teen years, typical criminal career not lasting longer than 10 years. Developmental psychology states that the adolescent brain continues to mature until a person reaches about 25. Courts currently consider someone an adult at age 18. The report stated that activists want to hold courts to the same professional standard as developmental psychologists.

The Sentencing Project said that extreme sentencing is actually counterproductive to public safety. Sprinkled throughout the 50-page report are a collection of sidebars of some second look sentencing successes. Many of those people going on to be powerful motivators for change within their respective communities. These people would never have benefitted their communities or the people within them in this fashion had they not secured an early release.

Long-term sentencing redirects important resources that could have been better used in community programs or rehabilitation services.

Moreover, compassionate release programs, clemency, parole, and other possible early release mechanisms that were once prolific in use have grown atrophied.

All of this has created a clogged system that is weighed heavily on the side of the elderly and all of the medical expenses that go along with that age group.

The report recommended ending mass incarceration and promoting community and public safety. To accomplish this, The Sentencing Project suggested several steps: criminal justice systems automatically review sentencing and conviction after a person has served 10 years of their sentence anticipate and monitor racial disparities in sentencing appoint counsel to represent the individual throughout all resentencing proceedings place decision-making authority with qualified personnel making evidenced based assessments ensure resentencing takes societal goals into consideration provide restorative justice services and provide greater transparency for victims.

“Rehabilitation and redemption are relevant goals not only for imprisoned people being held accountable for their crimes, but also for the policymakers, practitioners, and members of the public who demand excessive prison terms that are counterproductive to public safety,” the report concluded.

In front of a joint session of Congress on the abolition of the death penalty, Pope Francis said, “A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

Source: The Sentencing Project: ‘A Second Look at Injustice’

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