In late September, during the first of three debates, President-Elect Donald Trump excoriated Hillary Clinton for her role in foreshadowing a wave of teenage “super predators” during her time as First Lady. The exact statement, delivered at a 1996 event in New Hampshire:
“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.”
“I do want to bring up the fact that you were the one that brought up the words super-predator about young black youth,” Trump said at the debate on September 28. “And that’s a term that I think was … horribly met, as you know. I think you’ve apologized for it. But I think it was a terrible thing to say.”
Plenty of legislators in Washington shared Clinton’s view of violent kids back then. And one might soon be confirmed as Trump’s Attorney General.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), working with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), crafted S. 10, a bill that aimed to address the belief that “the number of juvenile offenders is expected to undergo a massive increase during the first 2 decades of the twenty-first century, culminating in an unprecedented number of violent offenders who are less than 18 years of age.”
Sessions is now Trump’s choice to lead the Justice Department, which means he presides over the only federal agency that currently includes a significant juvenile justice agenda. Much of that juvenile portfolio is managed by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), a division of the Office of Justice Programs established to oversee activities funded by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974.
S. 10 did not pass, and a second effort at a juvenile crime bill a year later (in the wake of the Columbine shooting) flamed out over partisan disputes on gun control. But S. 10 does offer some insight into Sessions’ mindset on juvenile justice as AG.
The full name of S.10 was the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offenders Act of 1997. It was introduced at a time when both parties had taken to stern rhetoric when it came to juveniles accused of violent crimes.
From the Republican platform in 1996:
“While we acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of single parents, we recognize that a generation of fatherless boys raises the prospect of soaring juvenile crime.”
“We will stress accountability at every step in the system and require adult trials for juveniles who commit adult crimes.”
From the Democratic platform in 1996:
“At the same time, when young people cross the line, they must be punished. When young people commit serious violent crimes, they should be prosecuted like adults. We established boot camps for young non-violent offenders.”
S. 10 was the legislative expression of that rhetoric, in particular the consensus on reacting to violent offenses: adult time for adult crime.
For starters, it ratcheted up mandatory sentences for gang-related crimes prosecuted in federal court. It also proposed to grant federal prosecutors full discretion to try any teen over the age of 13 as an adult.
Short of policing Constitutional violations, the Justice Department has little direct influence on the policing and judicial proclivities of states. But S. 10 uses the best weapon Congress has at its disposal to steer state-level policy: Cash.
The bill held out $500 million of block grant money to dole out to states for myriad services related to punishing and helping juvenile offenders, or preventing juvenile delinquency. Among the specific allowable services mentioned in the bill:
- Utilization of graduated sanctions
- Restitution programs
- Programs focused on vocational training
- After-school programs and other youth development organizations
- Construction of juvenile facilities
But a state’s portion of those funds came with a very significant string attached. By the year 2000, states had to amend their criminal code in such a way that “juveniles age 14 and older may be prosecuted under State law as adults, for an act that would be a serious violent felony (as defined by State law) if committed by an adult.”
Even though S. 10 never passed, many states saw the nets widen when it came to juvenile transfers during this period. A decade later, a brief published by the Justice Department would concede that juveniles sent to adult facilities were more likely to reoffend than those sent to juvenile facilities.
A larger federal attempt to study the transfer of juveniles, initiated by the Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2010, has been delayed for several years.
It is not clear from the record whether Sessions’ belief in transfer statutes has wavered. In 2009, during a markup of a bill to reauthorize the JJDPA, he introduced an amendment that would allow federal prosecutors to transfer more juveniles into adult court without having to get judicial approval.
The amendment is pretty limited in scope. It allows prosecutors to transfer freely in cases where juveniles have committed very serious offenses against certain federal law enforcement officers or U.S. officials and judges. But his defense of the amendment speaks to a belief that wide transfer discretion is sound policy.
“It is time for the rest of the country to … treat juvenile murderers the way we treat adult murderers; as dangerous predators that should be removed from society,” Sessions wrote in an explanation of the amendment.
The amendment was defeated, and Sessions did not vote for the reauthorization. He was not present at the 2015 Judiciary meeting at which the most recent reauthorization bill was passed by voice vote.