They Were Sentenced as “Superpredators.” Who Were They Really?
Anthony Rolon was 17 when he got into a fight and stabbed Robert Botelho Jr. to death.
It was the 1990s, and states across the country were cracking down on juvenile crimes amid fears of a new type of remorseless teenage criminal — a “superpredator.” Rolon was locked up for life with no chance of release.
“They’re just looking at the crime,” Rolon says in the new FRONTLINE documentary, Second Chance Kids. “They don’t take into account how you grew up. They don’t take into account whether you had your parents in your life … You’re sentenced to life without parole. You’re a predator, and that’s it.”
“At the time,” Rolon says, “my mother was getting high, so I didn’t have no relationship with her. My father sold drugs. I learned negativity from him. I had anger, man. It was just all anger … I didn’t think about the victim’s family. I didn’t care.”
In the years since Rolon was sentenced, the “superpredator” theory has been largely discredited and disavowed. Starting in the mid-2000s, a series of Supreme Court rulings began to make the case that kids are different than adults when it comes to crime — more vulnerable to outside pressures, more impulsive, and therefore less culpable for their crimes. In the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, the justices said that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles were unconstitutional. Importantly, the court said that a juvenile’s background and personal circumstances were clearly relevant to their sentencing.
In the wake of those rulings, states have moved to reconsider how they punish juveniles — and what they do with the roughly 2,230 inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.
What Were Their Backgrounds?
During the height of the superpredator scare, academics like John DiIulio, the Princeton professor who coined the phrase, predicted that a wave of ruthless, violent young offenders was on the horizon. “A superpredator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought,” DiIulio said in 1996.
Though he would later disavow the theory, critics say the damage was done. Lawmakers latched onto the theory, resulting in tough-on-crime policies for juveniles across the country.
In 2012, the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform, released a national survey that offered a more three-dimensional portrait of those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. They received responses from 1,579 inmates, representing two-thirds of the population serving that sentence at the time.
There was “overwhelming evidence that the childhoods they had were considerably violent and disrupted,” said Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and author of the survey.
The survey found that 79 percent reported witnessing violence in their homes growing up. Those surveyed were six times more likely to say they had witnessed violence in their homes when compared to youth in the general public. More than half reported seeing violence in their neighborhood on a weekly basis. More than a quarter had a parent in prison, while 59 percent had a close relative who was incarcerated.
“All of those factors were very important in terms of their upbringing and how they adjusted to life,” Nellis said.
The survey also found high levels of abuse, especially among girls. Around 47 percent reported being physically abused, including nearly 80 percent of girls, while 20 percent reported being sexually abused, including 77 percent of girls.
“Most of these kids were victims before they were perpetrators,” said Carla Barrett, a professor in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s not meant as a way to excuse their offending, but a way to understand their offending. You don’t normally have a 14- or 15-year-old involved in serious violent crime without something having gone wrong early on or somewhere in their past.”
Who Got Life Without Parole?
Most of those sentenced to life without parole for juvenile crimes were charged in homicide-related crimes. Many committed the killing themselves. In other cases, a jury found that even though they didn’t pull the trigger or directly cause the death themselves, they conspired to commit a felony that led to someone’s death.
A majority of juvenile lifers — nearly 66 percent — are black, according to data collected from corrections departments across the country and analyzed by Phillips Black, a public interest law practice.
The data, collected in 2015, showed that life without parole sentences were disproportionately imposed on black juveniles, even when compared to rates of arrest. While three percent of white juveniles arrested for murder were sentenced to life without parole, five percent of black juveniles were locked away for life.
The Phillips Black report noted the stark racial disparities in some states in particular, noting that while the population of the state of Texas was 43.5 percent white, all 17 people serving life without parole for juvenile crimes in 2015 were black or Hispanic. In Illinois, nearly 82 percent of the juveniles sentenced to life without parole were minorities, even though they made up 38 percent of the state’s population. Louisiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina and other states showed similar disparities.
“Unfortunately, many of our nation’s most extreme sentencing practices do disproportionately fall on the backs of people of color, and juvenile life without parole has been no exception,” said John Mills, the lead author of the report.
Barrett, who researches the consequences of the criminal justice system on young people, said there’s racial disparity across the entire system — from which young people are tried as adults to which adults receive the death penalty. Factors as wide-ranging as the history of racism in American society and the role of implicit bias in policing and sentencing, can all influence the outcomes seen in such cases, she said.
“We know that it’s not always driven by the commission of crime,” she said. “Sometimes the explanation of why more members of one group get arrested than another is because they’re committing more of those crimes. Other times it’s where you’re putting law enforcement resources or the types of crimes you’re focusing on. And then it has to do with implicit bias among prosecutors, among juries, among even defense attorneys and judges that are making these decisions.”
How are States Changing?
Five states — California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Michigan — are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all life without parole sentences for juveniles, according to the Phillips Black report.
After the 2012 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, some states started implementing the ruling retroactively, meaning that any inmate who had been sentenced to mandatory life without parole as a juvenile would have an opportunity to be re-sentenced or to have a parole hearing. In Massachusetts, for example, more than 60 inmates were affected by the ruling, including Rolon, who was granted parole in 2014 over the objections of his victim’s family.
Other states only applied the rule going forward, until the Supreme Court weighed in again in 2016, clarifying that its 2012 decision applied retroactively.
The Supreme Court clarified another aspect of the ruling in 2016, re-iterating that life without parole sentences should be banned for “all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now ban sentencing juveniles to life without parole, while a handful of other states don’t use the sentence as a matter of practice. California, Florida and Pennsylvania have since narrowed the criteria for who can receive that sentence, while legislation has been introduced in Louisiana that would eliminate life without parole for juveniles. Michigan changed its laws in 2014 so juveniles wouldn’t automatically be eligible for life without parole.
In addition to tackling sentencing policies, some states have worked on raising the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults, reducing the chance that juveniles from 14 to 16 years old would be charged in adult courts and given mandatory sentences. However, some states still mandate long sentences — from 25 to 40 years — for juveniles, which some advocates say still doesn’t comply with the Supreme Court’s view of juvenile sentencing.
“There are dangerous youth, but they’re few and far between,” Barrett said, “We have to look at who’s getting caught up in these wide nets that we throw out in our criminal justice system.”