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Juvenile Violent Offenders

The Concept Of The Juvenile Super Predator

The large increase in violent crime arrests (and especially the increase in murder arrests) combined with the media's and the public's fascination with a few horrific incidents caused policymakers to ask in the early 1990s if juvenile justice policies and procedures should be changed. Surprisingly, the idea that today's juveniles are more troublesome and threatening than those of previous generations is not a new concern. Socrates made similar comments about the juveniles of his time. A juvenile court judge at the end of World War II wrote the following assessment of the teenagers of his time:

There is Teen-Age Trouble ahead. Plenty of it! We have just won a world war against the Axis enemies. Now we face a new critical war against a powerful enemy from within our gates. That enemy is juvenile delinquency. . . . [Juvenile delinquency] is an ever growing evil, a shocking reality. It is a real and alarming menace to every city, borough, and township. It is a disease eating at the heart of America and gnawing at the vitals of our democracy. (Henry Ellenbogen, 1946)

There has always been a concern about the younger generation. In the past, adults generally attributed the deficiencies of juveniles to the poor quality of their education at home and in the schools and to poor acculturation. But in the early 1990s, other causes for the apparent differences in the younger generation were proposed. Due in part to the increase in crime and arrest trends, in part to the media obsession with juvenile violence, and in part to validation of the concept by a few high profile academics (e.g., John DiLulio of Princeton University and James Fox of Northeastern University), the phrase juvenile super predator entered the public consciousness. Juvenile super predators were characterized as ruthless sociopaths, youth with no moral conscience who see crime as a rite of passage, who are unconcerned about the consequences of their actions, and who are undeterred by the sanctions that could be leveled against them by the juvenile justice system. Some even argued that this new breed of offender had different DNA than their predecessors, changes caused by the alcohol and other drug abuse of their young, unmarried mothers. The argument went that violence juvenile crime was increasing and would continue to increase because this small group of juvenile super predators commits more vicious crimes with higher frequency than delinquents of past generations. The supporters of this argument concluded that the rehabilitative approach of the juvenile justice system was wasted on these youth because their natures were largely unchangeable. Deficiencies of earlier generations were attributed to factors that could be changed with appropriate interventions; but this new breed of juvenile super predator was so disturbed that change was unlikely. As a result, rehabilitation would be ineffectual. Protecting the public from these vicious juvenile criminals became the primary concern of juvenile justice policymakers.

Many state legislators adopted the super predator explanation for the increase in juvenile violent crime in the early 1990s and responded appropriately. To insure the justice system had at its disposal the appropriate sanctions to handle this new breed of juvenile offender, nearly every state in the early 1990s changed in significant ways how their justice systems responded to violent juveniles. These changes were all designed to increase the flow of juveniles into the adult criminal justice system and they took many forms. Many states adopted legislation that required juveniles charged with certain violent crimes to be tried as adults or expanded the list of crimes that were excluded for juvenile court jurisdiction. Some states gave prosecutors the discretion to file certain juvenile cases in either juvenile or adult court. Some states broadened the range of offenses or lowered the age of a youth a juvenile court judge could transfer to the criminal court. Many states made multiple changes.

The importance of the super predator construct was that it focused the policy makers' attention on the offenders, and away from external social factors that could be causing violence by juveniles and adults to increase. If certain individuals were damaged beyond repair, the only solution was to incapacitate them to protect public safety. During this time period, the number of prison beds grew in the United States at unprecedented rates, while relatively few federal dollars were spent on delinquency prevention or rehabilitation programs. The simplicity of the super predator concept made it both attractive and harmful. It gave policymakers an easy answer to a complex social problem and an answer that permitted them to ignore (or discredit) many of the more complex social causes proposed for the increase in violent juvenile crime.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawJuvenile Violent Offenders - Prevalence Of Juvenile Violence, The Growth In Juvenile Violence In The Early 1990s, The Concept Of The Juvenile Super Predator