A new report from the Sentencing Project warns that rising political pressure fueled by overblown public perception of crime could roll back recent improvements in the U.S. juvenile justice system, particularly regarding non-white youth.
“We’ve seen this before,” said report author Joshua Rovner, Director of the Sentencing Project’s Youth Justice division. “This is what happened in the 80s and 90s with sharp increases in crime. More kids went into the adult system and they were more likely to be detained in the juvenile system. And now we have decades of evidence that that didn’t work. We’ve definitely seen Black youth bear the brunt of those policies.”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s pundits and the media fed national fears of ever-escalating crime with unsupported claims that more incarceration was needed to contain teen crime and prevent children from growing into monsters. Hyper conservative publications, like the Weekly Standard, worked to turn one generation against another by publishing articles such as ‘The Coming of the Super-Predators,’ wherein author John DiLulio claimed “all of the research indicates that Americans are sitting atop a demographic crime bomb. And all of those who are closest to the problem hear the bomb ticking.”
In that same 1995 article, DiLulio describes police claiming kids “kill or maim on impulse, without any intelligible motive,” and he cites author Mansfield B. Frazier, a five-time convicted felon, writing in his “just-published book” ‘The Coming Menace,’ that “as bad as conditions are in many of our nation’s ravaged inner-city neighborhoods, in approximately five years they are going to get worse, a lot worse.”
The claims did not pan out. Frazier may have been whipping up passion for a new book, but there’s no finding “The Coming Menace” on Amazon. A Cleveland periodical instead describes him as a youth mentor, while a 2017 Daily Beast article has Frazier recounting his father’s “Rosa Parks moment” standing up to racist Irish cops in 1950s-era Cleveland rather than demonizing teens. DiLulio, meanwhile, distanced himself from his own hyperventilated warnings in 2001.
But the damage was done. The 1980s and 1990s saw a huge uptick in new state laws dumping youth in juvenile halls and adult prisons, primarily by either decreasing the age for certain offenses to 14, or increasing the types of offenses bouncing them into criminal court.
Courts across the nation only recently began amending their “tough on crime” policy of funneling teenagers to adult jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers after brutal Three-Strikes laws and other “lock ‘em all up” tactics choked prisons and made them too expensive for state budgets to handle.
But now the Sentencing Project fears incorrect public perception may force an end to that era of reform.
Polling, it says, has “consistently found most Americans believed crime was increasing (even as it fell),” and new laws are already encouraging more pre-trial detention of arrested youth (in the District of Columbia and Kentucky), while other states like Louisiana and Texas are building more youth prisons. Black Girl Times has already reported on one Louisiana judge opting to send youth to an adult prison, despite ACLU appeals. And the Annie E. Casey Foundation is finding longer lengths of stay at detention centers across the country, particularly for non-white residents. In fact, Black detainee rates are more than 70% higher in 2023, surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
According to Rovner, we owe much of that heightened paranoia to the media rather than real numbers.
“We’re in a moment that the economy is doing well, and inflation is down, so this is an attempt by politicians and their allies in the media to hype up the crime that does exist,” Rovner told BGX. “There was some increase from the nadir of the pandemic, but that’s to be expected. Of course, school-based arrests are down when schools are closed. When people are staying at home burglaries are going to drop. What we’ve seen in many cases was small rebound offenses, but they allow dishonest people to say ‘look at the increase’ when the drop was an atypical drop.”
“If you lost 10 pounds because you got the flu and you gained it back that’s not a mark of gaining weight, that’s returning to normalcy,” he added.
Right-wing news organizations like Fox News and its never-ending drumbeat of lawlessness lead the effort to terrify the nation. The network and its clones are so caught up in inflating criminal fear that its reporters sometimes embarrass themselves on the beat. One man-on-the-street Fox News segment concerning Seattle residents “shooting up” drugs in full view of onlookers aroused mockery from actual sources on the street.
“And they were bothering you?” one source asked the reporter.
“I was in a car,” the reporter responded, “but people—”
“Oh, no! You were in a car. Oh, no!” the source said with a flurry of giggles. “They were hurting you so bad!”
Media Matters confirms Fox News “Created a Crime Crisis in a Failed Attempt to Sway the Midterms,” despite no hard evidence of a crime spike in statistics.
In an attempt to pull “tough on crime” Republican candidates across the finish line “Fox News found ways to focus on the drama of a crime crisis — particularly in the lead up to the 2022 midterms, when … [it] devoted 11% of its coverage to crime,” Media Matters said.
Despite the GOP netting middling or negative results this last mid-term, opinions ranking crime and violence as “a great deal” did tick up noticeably between 2021 and the 2022 mid-term. The lingering downside of the anti-crime crusade however, could be the echoes of what has already happened in the 80s, and Black youth could potentially catch the worst of it.
“We saw white youth also get arrested and incarcerated as a result of those policies, but Black youth were treated even more harshly. The increases in arrests were not just for shootings or burglaries. There were increased arrests for loitering or disorderly conduct because we thought we could police and incarcerate our way out of crime,” Rover said. “Politicians think we can throw police or prisons at crime, but it only creates more crime.”