The Myth Of The Super Predator

Jul 8, 2020

Credit Merle Cooper

The Myth of the Super Predator debunks an idea first made famous by then-first lady Hillary Clinton, an idea we still haven't fully shaken off: that some children are beyond redemption.

This story follows Joel Ware, who was an accomplished criminal by age 14 and served Juvenile Life in prison until the age of 21. Joel went on to become a highly successful social worker, and subsequently, an engineering student. His life story refutes the super predator myth and lays bear society's actual challenges.

JOEL: I did a lot of stealing, breaking and entering in people homes.

EVE: You’re how old?

JOEL: Eight, nine, going on 10

EVE: Joel Ware grew up in New Orleans. His older brother David taught him how to cut grass, which is what he was doing when he met these two older guys, brothers, named Corey and Stelly. One day, Joel went with them to rob a gas station.

JOEL I cut class. Caught the bus from the lower 9th ward all the way to the West Bank. They handed me a handkerchief. Told me to cover my face up. Corey had a little revolver. It was a 22. And I don’t think it had any bullets in it.

EVE: Joel had never held a gun before. He was ten years old.

EVE: So do you remember – like what was your reaction when they handed you this gun?

JOEL: Oh there was no reaction; it was one of those things you felt like you was a part of something.

JOEL They sent me in because I was young. I walked into the store. And it was an old lady. I told her: give me all your money. She just froze and looked at me.

JOEL They came in behind me. They had bandanas on as well. One of them had a hood on. They were talking to her, telling her the little guy’s not playing. We’re sticking you up.

EVE: The lady was nervous, and so was Joel. He kept thinking about something his mother always said: respect the ladies. And he thought: What if this lady knows my mom?

JOEL And I kept doing this. I kept making sure the bandana was covering my face, you know. I was nervous. There was no tough guy about it. I was just following through, you know.

JOEL: I know she put rows of quarters in the bag. Lottery scratch tickets were out. I remember grabbing some of those. And we ran.

EVE: Here’s what ten-year-old Joel learned that day: robbing -- he was good at it.

JOEL: I felt like it was nothing. It was easy. Part of it was like: that was it? That’s what that was about? I felt like it was doable.

EVE: There’s a word we’ve used for kids like Joel: super predator. Dangerous kids, born bad, America’s biggest fear. But maybe we have it wrong. Maybe they’re kids.

I’m Eve Abrams. This is Unprisoned.

DERWYN BUNTON: Is this radio, maybe you’ll have a picture of him, but Joel is just likeridiculously handsome, like he’s just one of those good looking folks. I think he was a model at some point.

REBECCA KENDIG: He’s very warm, and engaging and is quick to smile

DERWYN: I think he was a model at some point.

REBECCA KENDIG: He was a hugger for sure. Big arms! You know, like: hey, Rebecca!

DERWYN: I am the chief public defender for New Orleans and – how did I meet Joel? Let’s see. I was the associate director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana

EVE: And what’s your name?

DERWYN: Derwyn Bunton

REBECCA KENDIG: My name is Rebecca Kendig. I’m a social worker in New Orleans. I’ve long worked in the criminal justice system.

EVE: Back in the 1990’s, when Joel was robbing people, there was a national push to be tough on crime. It was a few years before a Princeton professor named John DiIulio coined the term “super-predators” -- kids who were, quote, “radically impulsive and brutally remorseless.''

Hillary Clinton famously used the term in a 1996 speech:

CLINTON: They are often the kinds of kids that are called “super predators,” no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

EVE: DiIulio predicted crime would spike because of these so-called “super predators.” Instead, juvenile crime went down. A lot. And things were changing. Scientists were learning much more about how brains work-- specifically how in teenagers’ brains, the parts in charge of judgment, are still growing.

MILLER: Developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.

EVE: This is what the Supreme Court said. around a decade after the super-predator myth was invented.

MILLER: First, children have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’” leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. FADES DOWN under:

EVE: Second: They can’t just up and move if they live in a house or neighborhood or city where crime or violence are easy to come by.

MILLER: And third, a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s…

EVE: The Supreme Court said, for all these reasons, kids’ shouldn’t be treated like adults.

MILLER: Our decisions rested not only on common sense—on what “any parent knows”—but on science and social science as well.

EVE: DiIulio later regretted creating the idea of the super predator – which helped put so many children in prison. In fact, he promised to spend the rest of his life, quote “helping bring caring, responsible adults to wrap their arms around these kids.”

But “super-predator” stuck.

This was on the news 20 years after Hilary Clinton’s speech. Four teenagers carjacked two cars in a New Orleans suburb. The teens were 15 and 16.

TV reporter: Sheriff Newell Normand says all four teens have extensive criminal backgrounds, some with violent charges.

Normand: These children need to be put away. These are predators. And they’re acting like predators and we need to treat them like predators.

EVE: Crimes committed by kids, usually go down like this: in a group, often older kids teaching younger kids how to do it. It was like that for Joel.

JOEL: It was like the clique, you know. Like a little clique.

EVE: Robbing the gas station with Corey and Stelly made Joel feel like he was a part of something, like he belonged.

JOEL: A lot of times I went to school, my friends were very very few. You know kids can be cruel. You don’t get a lot of friends when you don't have the nice tennis shoes or if you kind of smelly when you come to school where your clothes are not washed, your hair is not cut. So that's one of the reasons why I really hung with those guys . You know, it's almost like when I started getting in trouble, it was because of the guys who were troublemakers -- they were the ones who kind of like accepted me.

SHERVINGTON: We all want to belong. I think one of the things humans want the most is to belong, to matter, to be accepted, to be loved.

EVE: Denese Shervington is a psychiatrist, originally from Jamaica, she works in public health here in New Orleans.

SHERVINGTON: Some people call me the community psychiatrist

What I hear in this young man is just the absence of adults in his life who guided him. And so he finds a family on the streets. As I heard someone say: if we don’t take care of our kids, the streets will take care of them. And that’s perhaps the first place that they feel they belong and that they matter.

EVE: At this point in Joel’s young life, he already seemed headed toward either becoming a career criminal or ending up dead. His parents split up when he was 3, leaving his mom a single parent and Joel’s six older siblings in charge of watching him. It’s also when Joel’s brothers started getting arrested.

JOEL: My mom worked a lot so she had to leave all those responsibilities on them. And while she was working, one of the older brothers – they were always getting in trouble. If one was serving time – and it could have been a little bit of time, like 3-6 months – he was coming home, one went in.

EVE: What were they serving time for?

Joel: Stealing cars, stealing rims off of people’s cars. David went to jail for selling drugs.

EVE: Your mom has sons in and out of prison, and she puts them in charge of you?

JOEL: Yeah, and in her defense, she worked a lot.

DERWYN: You know, when you hear people: where are the parents? They’re often working 3 jobs. Like, that’s where they are. Trying to survive in what is a very difficult economic environment for some people.

EVE: Derwyn Bunton, defender of many teenagers involved in the criminal legal system.

DERWYN: Passing your kids around or hoping they’re taking care of themselves and not getting in trouble. That is hard. Like that is super hard. And so the outcomes are more predictably bad than they are good because the inputs are more predictably bad than good.

SHERVINGTON: There’s such inequity. We are back to poverty and inequity. Children do not chose to be criminals. They usually steal because there is something absent, and after a while the pattern is like: okay, if I do that, I get this.

TRACK: Think of the things children need: beautiful playgrounds, warm, nurturing schools, summer camp, after school, food. Enough food to fill their bellies. Some kids… a lot of kids, don’t get much of that.

SHERVINGTON: We have disinvested in them. There are no investments in these folks.

EVE: There’s also this idea that some kids -- almost always black and brown kids – are not only dangerous, but irredeemable. In the summer of 2018, police arrested five kids in my New Orleans neighborhood: a 15 year o ld, two 14 year olds, and two 9 year olds. Among other things, they stole $500 from a business. Here’s the owner:

WWL AUDIO: And it looked like to me that nothing was going to correct these people. They’re just -- some of them are just born bad.

EVE: Dr. Shervington says no one is born bad. It’s circumstances that create bad behavior.

SHERVINGTON: What you show a kid reflects how you think about them: if they’re growing up in blight and they don’t have access to healthy foods, that’s how they’re going to feel about themselves for the most part, and that’s how they’re going to treat us.

DERWYN: We can’t take a bunch of things away from people, and then throw roadblocks in their way, and then say: get over it. Life isn’t fair. That’s true. But isn’t the same kind of unfair for everybody.

JOEL: There were times where I tried to do something other than the things that I was doing that, that put me in the juvenile prison.

EVE: Joel tried football, basketball, drumming. Most beloved was fishing. But each time, instead of being accepted or encouraged, he got smacked down

JOEL: I think if I would've had someone pull me aside and said, hey man, I'm going to just be a fisherman, they would have had me. They woulda had me. It was to the point where when we had career day, and they tell you come to school dressed accordingly for career day and I had no idea that you're supposed to, come dressed with a professional attire. So I came dressed like I was going fishing. I caught the bus from uptown to downtown with some rubber boots on, some clothes that you put on when you go fishing, a fishing pole. Look, I got in the classroom, the lady Ms. Pitts told me, she said Mr. Ware: stand up. She said, you do know when you come dressed for career day, you don't dress as if you are at work. You come dressed in a suit, shirt, and pants and a tie and you tell us what it is you want to become. And a class kind of chuckled a little bit, you know, this is when I started cutting class, when that lady did that. Ah Man, I was like forget that; I’m gone, you know. I left and I'm hooked up with some guys was cutting class and some of them were fishing in the bayou or breaking in houses.

But that day I remember the day. I thought that's what I thought was doing the right thing. You have no idea how I got-- I got dressed excited – ah man. Because when they say career day, I'm thinking I want to be a fisherman. I would tell everybody that.

SHERVINGTON: He liked fishing . He just needed a little something more. Just – one adult who could have taken him fishing would have probably saved him from this experience.

EVE: Joel continued learning, mainly from older kids, like how to be the lookout guy

JOEL: They call it watching the bus

EVE: the correct way to pat someone down.

JOEL: you got to make sure to pat and feel. Don’t be scared to feel their private parts cause it’s gonna save your life, cause if he got something you’re going to feel it.

EVE: it was like you were in robbery school

JOEL: Right. Exactly.

EVE: By the time Joel was 12, he was a confident thief.

JOEL: I’m very aggressive now. I think I know what I’m doing. Aggressive and reckless.

EVE: One time, Joel and a friend staked out a guy with dreadlocks at an ATM.

JOEL: I had the gun out. I pointed the gun at him.

EVE: A 9 millimeter he’d stolen from a pawn shop.

JOEL: I had no bullets in the gun. So I had to really, really sell it, you know.

EVE: The guy looked at this kid, Joel, and gave him the scariest look he muster.

JOEL: He looked at me really really scary. And I said man, give me everything. Just drop it right there. You can go that way, you know.

The guy was like -- looking crazy. His eyes was big. And I was like man, I’m not playing with you. Put it right there go. He put the money down, he walked. I grabbed it, and we ran to nearest bush and just sat down in the bush and just hid and just hid and just waited for a while. Cameras and everything right there, but it was at night. I was comfortable. I watched him, and it’s like I knew when to go to him, how long it should have taken, and which way he needed to go so we can go the opposite way.

DERWYN: What’s hard to communicate to people – folks who may not be in the work or in the game in quotes, like folks in the neighborhoods are – is understanding the rules. You try and figure out: okay where can I be successful? And when you’re young, your boundaries are just different. Part of it is adolescent development, your ability to appreciate danger, your impulsiveness – it changes your calculus on what you do when you’re looking to make it or succeed or just sort of survive. And so a lot of kids get into these dangerous situations because of their perceived ability to know the rules.

Rules on the street are: this is easy money. Kids learn that if you got a gun, folks just give you the money. I had a lot of friends with the story of the person who said: give me all your money, and they said: I don’t have and money. And the kid is like: really? And they’re like: No I don’t. And they’re like: ah, man, and they take off running. Because things fell apart. When you don’t give me the money, that’s the end of the game. I gotta run away, it’s time for me to go. And it’s terrifying in the moment when you’ve got a gun in your face. But from the kids’ perspective, you were never in danger.

DERWYN: The law treats that kid like we need to hide him or her under a rock somewhere for our safety.

EVE: Robbing people gets to be like a habit for Joel: When he leaves his house, on the way to wherever, he robs someone.

JOEL: It’s almost like I was living two lives. Although I was committing those crimes, I was still… I was still a kid

EE: Into video games, going to see his second movie, ever: Jurassic Park. And it’s around this time, Joel robs a drug dealer.

JOEL: I’m 13 now. And I’m selling crack.

EVE: Kids commit horrible crimes. Not just selling drugs. Also: murder, rape. But people who work with children in the criminal legal system say it doesn’t mean they’re super predators.

DERWYN: The thing that teenagers have, what young people have, more than anything is bad judgment. They’ve got a ton of it. That’s not who they are going to be; that is a developmental space they are in in a context that might not be all that supportive. We need to be careful to, while at the same time holding young people accountable, don’t criminalize being a kid. Not every fight is a battery. Not every theft requires prosecution. It sounds weird but the path of least resistance for a lot of this is jail. It is just really easy to put someone in jail.

NURSERY RHYME: Angola when I was one. They booked me for shooting that gun. I sat way down yonder on that farm for shooting that gun all night long in Angola. When I was one Angola (fades down under:)

CALVIN: My name is Calvin Duncan. I spent 28 and a half years in prison before the Innocence Project secured my release. While in prison, a group of us we would sit down and counsel each other and try to figure out what went wrong in our lives. We all was innocent to the world, did well in school as kids until a certain age. Like in my case, when I turned 14, it looked like things just turned crazy. But prior to that, as kids we said things that we heard. We heard a lot about Angola. There was a song we used to sing. We concluded it was a nursery rhyme. We then would go around. Each of us would have a number. And we would sit on the project steps and sing this song. And we concluded in prison we was unknowingly conditioning our minds as kids, not to succeed in school, not to be boy scouts, any professional, we was conditioning our mind, unknowingly to go to prison. And the sad thing is we all wind up in prison whether for stuff we did or stuff that we didn’t do.

CALVIN: (fade up under above) Then somebody else would say:

Angola when I was five.

They booked me for shootin that jive.

I sat down yonder on that farm for shootin that jive

All night long… in Angola, when I was five.

And we would go on and on and on.

MATTES: Children grow up and do what their world shows them.

My name is Catherine Mattes. I am the director of the Tulane Law School Criminal Justice Clinic. I represent adults, but I represent many adults who were incarcerated since they were adolescents.

MATTES: When you have children in a community who are singing a song from the time they are very little about being incarceration and when you grow up in a world where the adults are incarcerated and your family members are incarcerated and you're singing playground songs about being Angola bound, it’s hard to imagine that they’d end up anyplace other than Angola. It's not desirable it's not where they want to be. It's just inevitable.

MATTES: When we started off incarcerating more and more people, what we did is we destroyed the communities in which the children are growing up in. We know from social studies that when we incarcerate more people in a particular neighborhood we actually increase crime rather than decrease it. And that makes sense when you think that we're disrupting that community we're taking the economic sources away from the households. And I think that’s one of the issues about our high rates of incarceration is you are making the home environments unstable. And that is so disruptive for children. Children want routine and they want predictability. They want the security and safety of knowing that the grownups in their life are going to continue to be there.

EVE: By the time he’s 14, Joel’s buying weed in order to resell it. But one deal doesn’t go right. Joel never gets the drugs. Weeks go by, and he gets angrier and angrier. One day he grabs his gun and goes to confront his supplier – a middle aged white guy. They get into a fight.

JOEL: And he starts to run. I start to shoot at him. I don’t hit him; I just shoot at him three times. He’s freaking out because police cars are all over just like that. I mean just like that! (snaps)

EVE: Joel runs under a house. The police are all around, surrounding him. He’s 14 and this is where Joel’s criminal life ends.

JOEL: And I remember just trying to stay quiet. And I was breathing really hard, nervous, I was scared. Look, I had never been so scared. Doing the things I’ve done, I’d never been this scared. I knew this was something serious, and although I knew it was serious, I’m still worrying about my momma finding out. That’s the crazy part. I’m like: man, my momma can’t find out. She can’t find this out.

EVE: Eventually Joel comes out from under the house, and he says the police start beating on him.  Joel's brother tries to intervene.

JOEL: And I remember hearing Tony hollering, “What y’all beating him for, man? Y’all caught him already.” And they threatened to put Tony in jail, so Tony got back. And they took me to the Parish first – Orleans Parish Prison, for adults, and then when they found out I wasn’t old enough to go there, they took me to second district. These guys at second district, they’re slapping me around.  I fall asleep, pop.  They’ll slap me in the head, and I nod off again, and one guy would pull the chair from under me.

EVE: The police charge Joel with lots of things, including armed robbery. At 14, Joel could have been transferred to the adult jail and prosecuted as an adult. These days, that’s what happens to most 15 and 16 year old kids in New Orleans. But when Joel was arrested, under a different DA, most were prosecuted in the juvenile system – a system designed for kids. So in this way, he was lucky.

His juvenile court judge was Lawrence Lagarde.

JOEL: He took his glasses off, set em down put em back on, took them off, and finally spoke. He said: I’m going to send you away til your 21st birthday.

EVE: He was 14, so seven years.

JOEL: I served Juvenile Life.

EVE: A year after Joel was locked up, his older brother David -- the one who taught him how to use the lawn mower -- was shot and died. Judge LaGuard didn’t let Joel go to the funeral. He thought Joel would try to escape and retaliate, which Joel now admits, was probably true. At first, Joel was really angry. But after the anger passed, things started to shift for him.

JOEL: I started looking at everything different. I had just lost a brother of mine who was the closest thing to me as a father. I accepted the fact that I had time. I probably wasn’t going to go anywhere until I was 21. And if there was going be anything that was gonna become of me in that place, I had to just do my time.

EVE: So Joel found a way to kind of beam himself back to before, to when he was a little kid.

JOEL: I wanted to feel free while I was incarcerated. If that makes any sense, so I started cutting grass, and grass became really, really exciting to me because I did it when I was young.

EVE: Was it that it reminded you of being a kid

JOEL: Oh yeah, absolutely, it made me feel free. It reminded me --I tell people all the time: Man, I had a really, really, really enjoyable childhood. If I could ever go back to any part of my life, I’d go back to my childhood.

EVE: How old?

JOEL: Three.

EVE: The age he was when his parents split up.

JOEL: I’d go back to 3 and start.

EVE: Would you do something differently?

JOEL: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’d play more. I’d play in that yard more. Like the times I ventured out and started hanging out with the bad guys, there was enough stuff in the yard for me to do.

SHERVINGTON: I mean that’s like a therapist’s dream: the childhood pleasure now is what saves him as an adult.

EVE: Doctor Denese Shervington

SHERVINGTON: Cutting grass is… you have to be very present and you are usually you with yourself. There’s something there that allows him to be more meditative and quiet with himself and think about how he’s thinking and how he’s feeling. But we shouldn’t have to incarcerate people to get that.

JOEL: I didn’t want to do anything else but cut grass. But I didn’t have a GED so they made cut half a day and go to school the other half.

JOEL: I passed the GED my first time by the skin of my teeth. And it was strictly just to work. When I tell you I folded it up and put in the locker. It still has the crease to this day. I didn’t know the value of it right there. The value of it was work.

EVE: And what kind of work did you do?

JOEL: I was cutting grass. I was cutting grass.

JOEL: I’ve always cut grass the whole time I was there. And they wanted me to because I was good at it.

EVE: Joel spent six years cutting grass. He was released when he was 21

JOEL: I had no idea what I was going to do. I just know that I didn’t want to go back to jail, right?

EVE: Like you had been so good though, at being a criminal.

JOEL: Yeah

EVE :But that was gone from you?

JOEL: That was gone. Like when I was incarcerated, I heard guys tell me their charge that I couldn’t believe they had. I was like; I’ve done some really bad things, but I would have never thought of doing nothing like that. It was a culture shock for me, okay? You’re around – I call it different spirits. You’re around all these guys with these different charges. When I left, I knew: that was that. It wasn’t going to be nothing else.

EVE: Because Joel had served juvenile life, he didn’t have a record to hang over his head. He wanted his life to be different. He enrolled in college, outside of New Orleans, graduated, and started working with kids who’d been like him. This is how he met Social Worker Rebecca Kendig and Attorney Derwyn Bunton.

REBECCA KENDIG: I met Joel Ware when we hired him to work at the Youth Empowerment Project.

DERWYN: He was hired as one of our youth advocates for the Juvenile Justice Project.

REBECCA KENDIG: Not only was he a great youth advocate for the kids, but he’s a great representative for your agency.

DERWYN: He met with our kids who were incarcerated. He helped build cases for early release.

REBECCA KENDIG: And then while he was a youth advocate, he applied for and completed his master’s degree in social work. He’s very, very driven.

EVE: It was while working for Youth Empowerment Project that Joel ended up back in Judge Lagarde’s courtroom – this time as a social worker. Lagarde was old by then; he didn’t quite recognize Joel. Plus he’d changed a lot. He was an adult now.

EVE: If you could go back and play more, could you have gone in just a totally different trajectory?

JOEL: oh yeah, yeah

EVE: What would it have taken?

JOEL: I think just a little more attention from possibly David, or any of the other brothers. It definitely needed to be a brother. There’s something about that male to male. I think if one of my brothers or someone in the neighborhood, cause it’s if not coming from the house it could be someone in the neighborhood. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from the family member. I try to convey that message now, today: hey, it’s okay if you can’t get him. Don’t be afraid to let someone else do it. Because -- that’s where that statement comes from: it takes a village.

EVE: By his own accounts, Joel was a really dangerous kid. I asked him what he thinks about the words people use to talk about kids like he was, kids who commit crimes: predator, monster, born bad,

EVE: And they’re beyond – beyond redemption

JOEL: You can’t say that, especially at the age that is considered teenage, young adult. They’re still children. Even with all the crimes they commit. They’re still children. When do you cut off children’s age? Just because of a crime. You can’t do that. I think that would be inhumane. Even if the crime is so serious. They still growing – mentally and physically. They may have been exposed to some things where they may have developed skills in a really wrong way.

EVE: And do you think those young people are beyond changing?

JOEL: No, I don’t think that. I don’t think that. I wouldn’t count them out.

EVE: Unprisoned’s editors are Katy Reckdahl and Viki Merrick. Our theme music and the song you’re listening to right now are by Greg Schatz. Helen Gillet composed original music for this episode. Special thanks to Ramona Fernandez of the Loyola Law Clinic for reading those Supreme Court opinions. And to David Sommerstein, Laura Starecheski and the Rauschenberg Foundation. Learn more about the show at Unprisoned.org

I’m Eve Abrams. This is Unprisoned.