I am a superpredator.
At least that is how criminologists would have described me when I was a teenager. I was sentenced for my role in a first-degree murder when I was 13, just before the superpredator theory came into being.
A handful of criminologists, using apocalyptic language, claimed that kids would be responsible for a dramatic increase in violent crime during the 1990s. Such kids would be impulsive and remorseless. Black and Latino youth would be the center of that explosion in violence, according to the theory.
These predictions and the ensuing media hype fueled fear of young people of color and, with it, “tough on crime” policies that made it easier to try children as adults.
But the superpredator theory was a fiction. The rate of violent crimes committed by young people declined dramatically and is still going down. Today, the juvenile crime rate is at a 30-year low.
Yet we continue to live with the effects of this flawed theory, which dehumanized our children. Approximately 250,000 children are tried in adult court every year. We house children in adult jails and prisons, and isolate them in solitary confinement.
I know the superpredator theory is bogus, even though I fit its profile. Black and Latino, I was in a gang and had already been arrested 19 times, beginning when I was only 9. My probation officer said I was “incorrigible” — a word I did not even understand.
In reality, I was a kid who had experienced extreme poverty. My siblings and I often went without food. We bounced from apartment to apartment, eviction to eviction. We were placed in foster care, where we were abused and belittled.
When we went home to our mother, we faced frequent beatings from her boyfriend. The truth is that I longed for family and found it in a gang.
But because I had a public defender who believed in me, I did not receive the extreme sentence the state sought for me. After more than 13 years in prison, I came out at age 27 with a remorseful heart, a bachelor’s degree in social science and a mission to advocate for at-risk youth.
I’ve since earned a master’s degree and have provided individual and family counseling services. I serve as a resource to other formerly incarcerated youth, helping them to identify ways they can be involved in their local communities.
Most recently, I worked at Northwestern University, where I conducted clinical research interviews with delinquent youth. The goal was to provide the data needed to help guide public policy and the development of interventions and programs for at-risk youth.
Like other children, I simply grew up and changed.
I am not unique. I personally know many people who went to prison as children who are now working hard to create a better world and make sure other kids don’t follow in their footsteps.
Clinical research has proved that children’s brains are still developing and that kids are less able than adults to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. They also possess a unique capacity for resilience, growth and change. That’s why sentencing children to life without parole is so cruel.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a series of cases during the past decade that children should not be subject to our country’s harshest penalties.
I am not a superpredator. No child is.
Xavier McElrath-Bey works at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. He wrote this for the Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.