The Lessons of Philadelphia’s Crime Wave That Never Was - The World News

The Lessons of Philadelphia’s Crime Wave That Never Was

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In 1996, a bipartisan group calling itself the Council on Crime in America released a dire report. The headline in The New York Times: “Experts on Crime Warn of a ‘Ticking Time Bomb.’”

The report predicted that over the next decade, a generation of lawless, violent young men would come of age. In the early ’90s, crime in many U.S. cities had already risen to record highs. To avoid an even grimmer future, the report’s authors warned, communities needed to recognize a harsh reality: Some young people are too far gone to save.

“Make no mistake,” the report cautioned. “Recent drops in serious crime are but the lull before the coming crime storm.”

That storm never materialized. Five years later, John DiIulio Jr., one of the report’s primary authors, told an interviewer that he “wished he had never become the 1990s intellectual pillar for putting violent juveniles in prison and condemning them as ‘superpredators.’” By then, it was clear that the lull in violent crime was in fact a significant, lasting drop from its heights in the 1990s.

Assumptions about a generation of young men had proven to be false. But the lifelong sentences many of them had been given, fueled in part by those assumptions, remained in place. Nowhere was this truer than Philadelphia, which sentenced more children to life in prison without the possibility of parole than any other place in the United States.

Then, in the 2000s, the way the law treated young people started to evolve. Beginning in 2005, a series of Supreme Court decisions made mandatory life sentences for minors rarer across the country, prompting longstanding sentences to be reconsidered.

Today, Philadelphia is a national outlier in the number of child lifers who have been released, as Issie Lapowsky reported in a story for the Times in August. Hundreds of mostly Black men exiled as youths to prison for life have begun living on the outside.

Issie chronicled how these men got out of prison after having grown up in the carceral system. From the moment the men entered a system that treated them like adults, every incentive encouraged them not to be perceived as children. But as the law adapted to better regard the still evolving brains of children, at least some of the men Issie spoke with started to do the same. Learning more about the forces that had acted on them as youths gave the men newfound power as adults.

Our story on Philadelphia’s child lifers is part of a Headway series, Progress, Revisited, in which we compare past and present movements in the pursuit of racial equity for Black Americans (Headway is a Times initiative that covers the world’s challenges through the lens of progress). We asked readers whether they thought Philadelphia’s approach to its child lifers today constituted progress from a generation ago. Most agreed that it did. But the approach that reigns in the city today is contingent on a number of very changeable realities, such as the progressive bent of the city’s current district attorney. The situation is different in a state like Georgia. While most states have moved away from pursuing the most severe punishments for minors convicted of serious crimes, a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that Georgia has moved in the opposite direction, leading the nation in child lifers sentenced since 2012.

Some commenters on the story objected to the use of the word “child” to describe adolescents who had committed heinous acts. All the language one can use to describe young people in this context — “minors,” “juveniles,” “kids” — is fraught. It makes me think again of when the label “superpredator” caught on, and how that word led many people not to think about age at all.

The lessons of this story have become newly relevant since 2020. Recent spikes in violent crime have rekindled fears and calls for more severe punishment. In Philadelphia in recent years, homicides for the first time exceeded their peaks from the 1990s. The only expert consensus on why violent crime declined instead of cresting in the 2000s is that the causes are manifold and interlinked. But over time, research on the causes of violent crime has come to place greater importance on adverse childhood experiences helping experts better understand how patterns that gave rise to violence can be disrupted.

In the months ahead, the Headway team will be exploring what the communities on the front lines of violence prevention have learned. Now, I want to ask you: What are the most important lessons you take away from this history? And how do you apply those lessons to your corner of the world?

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