According to Slater, before the late 1980s, juvenile offenders were viewed as “fundamentally different from adults,” but the “crime wave” of the ‘80s and ‘90s changed this perception. During this time, the juvenile offender morphed into the “super-predator,” a juvenile criminal “utterly unlike the misbehaving teens of the past.” These new kids were “fatherless, Godless, and jobless,” and the crimes they committed were certainly not juvenile. The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives claimed, “You rape somebody, you’re an adult. You shoot somebody, you’re an adult.”
Since the crime wave of the ‘80s and ‘90s disproportionately affected areas of the country with high populations of African American citizens, the “super-predator” myth is disproportionately applied to black youths. This misconception only serves to worsen the racism and discrimination already preset in East Oakland.
In early 2000 came California’s Proposition 21, which increased sentences for certain crimes and gave prosecutors power to file “charges in adult court against offenders as young as fourteen.” Certain crimes, especially those involving sex, “now had to be prosecuted in adult court.” Within nine months of the passing the proposition, 30 percent of all California teens were charged as adults, and in San Diego County alone, “three out of every four young people were charged as adults by the end of that first year.”
These numbers are staggering, and they reflect the frequency with which juveniles are charged and prosecuted as adults in the state of California. This is not an occasional practice reserved for only the most severe cases; rather, it is largely the rule, and this passage draws attention to this unfortunate reality.
However, “the super-predator apocalypse is a myth,” Slater says. Juvenile arrest rates have been falling since 1994, “and that’s true across racial lines,” according to the FBI’s juvenile violent-crime index. There has been a 60 percent drop in violent-crime committed by black youths in the last twenty years, and homicide rates are down 82 percent, yet more and more black teenagers are jailed. Cases against black youths are twice as likely to be filed in adult court compared to white kids, and “cases against Latino youths are more than six times as likely.” Black offenders are also more likely to serve time. Just one-third of white teen offenders serve time compared to two-thirds for black kids. “Nationally, 58 percent of all incarcerated African American youths are serving their time in adult prisons.”
These statistics are evidence of the institutionalized racism that plagues California’s criminal justice system. Because of false “super-predator” stereotypes, Richard is viewed as a criminal from the outset simply because he is a young, black male. Furthermore, racist laws and practices are implemented within the system in such a way that Richard is automatically at a disadvantage because of his race. Richard’s punishment is more reflective of this widespread discrimination than it is of his crime.