“Superpredator” Labels Are a Relic of the 1990s, but Tough-on-Crime Policies Persist

David McNew

This piece was published in coordination with Zealous, an organization working to amplify the perspective of historically overlooked voices.

“Superpredator”: That’s what prosecutors, politicians, and the media called people like me in 1995, when I was tried as an adult for a crime I committed when I was 15. Generational trauma became the rationale to describe teenagers like me, "a young person bred for violence,” and I became the youngest person in the county to ever be tried as an adult. I was hurt, naive, and afraid — and I was about to spend at least 25 years behind bars.

Behind every statistic is a real person: I was one of them. When I was sentenced, tough-on-crime policies had already reached a fever pitch in the United States. By the late 1990s, the federal and state prison population had increased fourfold in two decades, eventually peaking at 1.6 million people in the late aughts.

But research has made it clear that increases in incarceration have little impact on crime rates. In recent years, advocates nationwide have worked hard to reduce prison populations and dismantle policies that disproportionately decimate Black and brown communities. But today — despite data that shows declines in both violent- and property-crime rates across the country — a resurgence of tough-on-crime messaging designed to stoke fear is threatening to undo the progress that has been achieved.

When I returned home four years ago, I hoped our culture had evolved past the kind of rhetoric that decades earlier had sent millions of young men like me into the prison system. Instead, I found that Americans are still steeped in a media environment that produces warped perceptions of crime. News cycles consistently overemphasize violent crime and highlight sensational, outlier cases, so much so that people who frequently watch the news are more likely to support the death penalty.

Black and Latino men, in particular, are overrepresented in the news as perpetrators of violent crime, fueling racist assumptions. One 2023 study by University of Houston faculty found that people who use neighborhood apps, like Nextdoor and Citizen, perceive their local crime rates to be higher, regardless of actual crime rates.

Politicians who weaponize crime rates as part of a political agenda are also responsible for the resurgence of these damaging narratives. Republicans often accuse Democrats of being “dangerously liberal on crime” for simply pursuing safe and effective policies, like bail reform and clemency. But Democrats are also often complicit in fearmongering and supporting “law and order” policies at the expense of decarceration and true health and safety in a community.

As a result, Americans are still deeply afraid of crime. Though crime rates remain at historic lows, 56% of Americans believe there is more crime where they live since last year, and 78% think there is more crime in the US overall, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. A 2018 Center for American Progress survey found that as many as 88% of respondents consider crime to be either a “major problem” or an “immediate crisis.” We continue to label people who commit crimes as “offenders,” “criminals,” and “monsters,” and stubbornly over-invest in carceral responses to crime at the expense of our humanity.

But we can’t let this fearmongering send us backward. The policies and practices of the '90s left devastation in their wake: Black and brown communities, like mine, lost entire generations to incarceration and police violence.

So when news outlets and politicians warn of an "epidemic of retail theft" and a "plague of lawlessness," we need to remind our communities of the facts: Retail theft rates are lower than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing criminal penalties for petty theft could actually have an inverse effect. When lawmakers suggest that bail reform is like "getting a free pass out of jail," we need to remind them that while eliminating cash bail does not increase crime rates, pretrial detention predominantly harms the health and well-being of Black and brown communities. And when parole boards across the country refuse to release people who have spent decades behind bars — despite ample evidence that many members of this population can safely return to the community — we need to demand more pathways home from prison.

The current national conversation on crime distracts us from investing in viable solutions that are proven to work by actually meeting the needs of impacted communities and keeping us all safer. Investments in schools, housing, and health care, along with preventative interventions, such as treatment for mental health issues and addiction, and reducing the availability of guns, are all effective, proven strategies that meaningfully reduce violence and harm in our communities. We’ve already seen the broad successes of bail reform, youth diversion programs, restorative justice interventions, and low recidivism rates for people — like me — given the opportunity to be released from long prison sentences.

As a returned community member and a father to two beautiful children, I crave safety. I know what it’s like to live in a community that isn’t safe. I don’t want my children or anyone else’s children to be exposed to crime or violence. But I also know that putting me — and thousands of other young men like me — in prison for 20, 30, 40 years or a lifetime isn’t the answer to the problems that my community is facing.

When I went to prison, I lost my voice. Young people today still have theirs. Together, in the midst of another election cycle that is sure to be full of fraught and misleading discourses about crime, we must tell policymakers that we need real investments in safety, not the tired scare tactics that will funnel another generation into America's prison system.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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