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In the 1980s and 1990s, driven to a moral panic by a sudden escalation in juvenile homicide rates, Michigan lawmakers enacted tougher laws with the intention of cracking down on all juvenile crime. That was the era of the “superpredator” (a term that has recently resurfaced in the presidential contest), a term coined by John Dilulio ,a Princeton professor who later became the Director of Faith Based Initiatives in George W. Bush’s administration, and was spread far and wide by a number of self-serving reform advocates who predicted an onslaught of psychopathic juvenile predators.

Here in Michigan, then-Governor John Engler proselytized for get-tough measures such as building a “punk prison.” Then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chair William Van Regenmorter insisted that children be treated harshly and as much like adults as possible when they break the law.

Twenty years later, these policies have proven short sighted and at odds with what we know about adolescents and their delinquent acts. Over that course of time, medical and social science research has demonstrated conclusively that the vast majority of teens engage in delinquent behavior at some point in their adolescence making delinquency developmentally normative. Research has also shown conclusively that most of those delinquent acts are the impulsive actions of still-developing teenage brains, and that these youths’ law breaking is “adolescent limited” rather than “lifetime persistent.” Simply put, almost all delinquency is outgrown in the normal course of maturing.


Reproduced with permission.