How We've Been Tricked Into Thinking Kids Will Be Criminals

February 8th 2015

The New York Times reports that politicians are rethinking the War on Crime, but on their way to reforming our prison industrial complex will they also address what churns our students into criminals?

Started in the 1970s by President Richard Nixon, the War on Crime was meant to combat rising lawlessness in American cities. From the 1960s until the early 1990sthe crime rate quadrupled, and in response, countless politicians embraced "tough on crime" platforms and policies. The result was an increase in police officers and an enhancement of their weaponry, as well as stiffer penalties for both violent and non-violent offenses, all the while convincing citizens to sacrifice personal freedoms in exchange for safety. Broken windows policing, stop and frisk, no-knock police raids -- all were crafted under the notion of the police being our first line of defense against potential criminals, the civil rights violated along the way were supposed to be immaterial.

This mindset was passed down to the foibles of our children. The school-to-prison pipeline consists of policies and practices within American schools that turn childhood behavioral issues into criminal offenses. Practices like zero tolerance policies, initially meant to curb drug use and fighting, end up suspending students over aspirin and putting six-year-olds in police cars for tantrums. But this phenomenon didn't appear in a vacuum. It is directly related to the on-going War on Crime and how fears about out-of-control criminality, gangs, and drug use trickled down to children.

Here are three public mindsets that lead to the increased criminalization of youth:

1. The myth of the child "super-predator"

Popularized by Princeton professor John J. Dilulio, Jr. and social scientist James A. Fox, the term "superpredator" was coined by Dilulio to refer to a looming "demographic crime bomb" that demonized a growing population of black and brown communities, making their skin color synonymous with out-of-control crime. The term completely dehumanized children, as they were the primary target of his "warning" on a burgeoning disaster that never came to fruition.

Dilulio wrote in 1995;

While the trouble will be greatest in black inner-city neighborhoods, other places are also certain to have burgeoning youth-crime problems that will spill over into upscale central-city districts, inner-ring suburbs, and even the rural heartland.


(A) few years ago, I forswore research inside juvenile lock-ups. The buzz of impulsive violence, the vacant stares and smiles, and the remorseless eyes were at once too frightening and too depressing (my God, these are children!) for me to pretend to "study" them. The numbers are as alarming as the anecdotes. At a time when overall crime rates have been dropping, youth crime rates, especially for crimes of violence, have been soaring. Between 1985 and 1992, the rate at which males ages 14 to 17 committed murder increased by about 50 percent for whites and over 300 percent for blacks.

The superpredator myth was widely believed by many politicians and policy-makers who turned "Get Tough on Crime" to a new slogan "Adult Crime, Adult Time" for youth. Starting in the 1990s, many states made it easier for prosecutors to punish children as adults.The previous juvenile justice system was condemned as not punitive enough for children considered inhuman, irredeemable and beyond salvation.

2. The Columbine tragedy and the fear of killers on campus

When I was very young the only police officers who came to our school were from "Officer Friendly," a community relations program that targeted youth. Through some smiles and friendly talk, officers encouraged us to trust the uniform and see them as helpers. But a few years before the tragic school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, our school district moved from occasional visits by an officer who carried candy and balloons to putting armed police officers on campus. What had spurred our administrators were a few isolated incidents involving a student who brought a gun to class and a girl who'd been sexually assaulted by another student in a neighboring district. While these crimes were incredibly rare, the sensational media coverage filled parents with fear. How did they know their children were safe?

While the school resource officers were brought under the auspices of keeping us safe from potential violence, our principal made their true purpose clear quickly -- any student caught being disruptive or fighting on campus would face arrest. Not a detention. Not a call to their parents. But arrest and possible expulsion. Zero tolerance practices were also instituted so that if drugs or anything deemed a weapon (from a real weapon like a gun to a pretend gun made with a child fingers) would become a matter for possible police involvement and suspension. And what happened at my school was evident across the U.S. throughout the 90s, as fearful parents demanded to know what school districts could do to protect their children from drugs and violence. School shootings were already a cable news staple before Columbine, but after the massacre the call for police in schools became more widespread. It didn't matter that a school shooting was statistically nil and that the officers would end up spending most of their time taking on mundane disciplinary roles. Fear drove the overreach, leading to more and more students in the juvenile system. Kids now had criminal records instead of traditional in-school discipline negotiated between parents and teachers.

3. If it bleeds, it leads

If politicians listened to Dilulio's superpredator mythology and parents thought their child's school would be the next to have a shooting, most of the blame can be placed squarely on our media -- both the news and our entertainment -- where what's sensational is more important than what's most likely to happen. Studies (like this one from the Annenberg Public Policy Center) have shown that people who digest more crime-based programming become more fearful. Acts that are statistically rare --  like stranger rape, violent home break-ins and kidnappings -- are treated as epidemics. For the perception of children as criminals, there is no difference.

Media outlets must take on a more responsible role: instead of ratcheting up fear for ratings, they should report the reality -- that crime is down, prosecuting children as adults, and zero tolerance programs do little to solve behavioral problems. Instead, these policies create a revolving door, where children go from school to the juvenile system to, eventually, adult prisons. 

As politicians rethink our justice system, they should reconsider the damage they've done to children based on senseless fear archetypes instead of rational thought. 

Share your opinion

Do you think the media is changing the perception of children?

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