OP-ED: New Massachusetts Law A Reminder That Change is Possible

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John LashThe governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, signed a new law on Wednesday mandating that 17-year-olds be tried and sentenced as juveniles. This is a victory for social activists and those interested in the welfare of kids, since evidence has been pointing at the many problems of trying and sentencing kids as adults for some time. With this win, only 10 states remain that treat 17 as the age of criminal responsibility.

Like a lot of states in the ‘90s, Wisconsin responded to the hyped up fears of a coming juvenile crime wave by making it easier to transfer kids to adult court and lowering the age at which such transfers became automatic. The period was epitomized by the “superpredator theory” postulated by Princeton criminologist John D. DiIulio.

As quoted in a 2001 New York Times article, his theory warned that ''a new generation of street criminals is upon us -- the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known.'' Even though DiIulio abandoned his theory within a few years and went on to counter it in journals and articles, the idea caught on in the popular media and in the minds of conservative policy makers and politicians.

Others, including Steve Drizin and Tom Hayden, have opined that the superpredator theory contributed to the profiling of Trayvon Martin, both by George Zimmerman when targeting the boy and by conservative commentators seeking to justify the killing by painting Martin as a thug, drug user and violence prone youth. The theory, never blatantly racist, painted a picture of these coming monsters that included the label “urban”, well known code for black or brown.

The racial imbalance of our justice system is evident, with African Americans and Latinos suffering from more than their fair share of contact with the system from police stops to prison time. Trayvon was only one drop in the ocean of systemic racism that plagues our society.

The bad news is that worldviews that tap into the undercurrent of racism take hold easily and take a long time for us to shake off. It’s been almost 20 years since the specter of deranged black youth intent on raping, robbing and killing whites captured the imaginations of legislatures across the country, and it’ll be awhile before we are free of it. And in fact it was only one of a long line of “theories” that put forth racial determinism as the cause of some social ill.

The good news is that change is possible, even if the path is arduous. Juvenile crime rates and detention are down, understanding of brain science and its impact on decision making is increasing, various groups are focused on decreasing disproportionate minority contact and work is underway to demolish the school-to-prison pipeline.

The new law in Massachusetts is another piece of good news, and perhaps soon the remaining 10 states will follow suit. As in all endeavors, it is easier to destroy than it is to build, but those of us who are building will never give up, and society will move inexorably forward.

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