Juvenile justice reform and the myth of the superpredator
A quick quiz about Michigan’s juvenile justice system: Which of the following scenarios involves the facts of an actual case filed in Michigan’s Family Courts?
1. A 15-year-old girl cuts a small piece of skin from a fetal pig she is dissecting in biology class and places it in the Slurpee of a girl she does not like. The classmate sees her do it, does not drink the Slurpee and reports her to the teacher. The first girl is charged with poisoning the second girl, a 15-year felony.
2. A 10-year-old boy with severe autism acts out in school. A paraprofessional intervenes to physically manage the boy and in the process injures her shoulder. The prosecutor files a delinquency petition against the boy but, in the judgement of the court, he is too young and too disturbed to formally prosecute, so he is diverted. But he is ordered to pay the paraprofessional $9000 in restitution for lost wages.
3. Two teenaged sisters are arguing over which of them will get to wear a particular pair of jeans. The argument escalates into a shoving match. One sister calls the police. The other sister is arrested, taken off to the juvenile detention facility and charged with domestic violence. The taxpayers are handed a bill for thousands of dollars to pay for her stay in detention, for the salaries of court personnel, attorney fees and probation officer salaries to oversee her for six months.
The correct answer: “All of the above.” These examples are typical of the cases processed in our family courts every day. They also illustrate some of the reasons that Michigan should undertake a major revision of its approach to juvenile crime.
In the 1980s and 1990s, driven to a moral panic by a sudden escalation in juvenile homicide rates, Michigan lawmakers enacted tougher laws with the intention of cracking down on all juvenile crime. That was the era of the “superpredator” (a term that has recently resurfaced in the presidential contest), a term coined by John Dilulio, a Princeton professor who later became the Director of Faith Based Initiatives in George W. Bush’s administration, and was spread far and wide by a number of self-serving reform advocates who predicted an onslaught of psychopathic juvenile predators.
Here in Michigan, then-Governor John Engler proselytized for get-tough measures such as building a “punk prison.” Then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chair William Van Regenmorter insisted that children be treated harshly and as much like adults as possible when they break the law.
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