Pittsburgh — When juvenile crime soared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many states enacted harsher penalties for youths and built new prisons to hold them. But the horde of violent young people never materialized.
And now many of those multimillion-dollar prisons have empty beds.
"We're seeing that sort of thing all over the country," said Dan Mcallair, vice president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "Legislation and policy was enacted at a time when juvenile crime had vastly dissipated."
The $71 million Pennsylvania state prison at Pine Grove, which opened in January about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, was designed to house more than 500 of Pennsylvania's most violent young offenders. It now holds only 183 juveniles.
The prison, which except for its razor wire-topped fences looks like a college campus, is being used to ease overcrowding in other prisons. Adults are kept in a separate wing.
Other states are seeing similar patterns.
Lawmakers in Colorado responded to a wave of youth violence in the early 1990s by passing strict laws for juveniles and backing a new, $36 million facility in Pueblo with 480 beds. The inmate population there leveled off in 1998 at about 300 inmates and had fallen to 230 as of Nov. 1.
California opened the Tehachapi juvenile correctional center in 2000, but state corrections officials say the number of young men in prison for serious crimes as of Nov. 25 has dropped 20 percent since peaking in 1998.
Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, said a Connecticut facility he just visited is less than half full.
Most high-security juvenile prisons were opened after 1996, a year in which the phrase "superpredator" was coined by John DiIulio, a scholar of public policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He warned that a wave of juvenile violence would continue into the next decade, led by the new breed of violent, disaffected youth.
Melissa Sickmund, a researcher at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, said DiIulio's superpredator theory was dismissed by most experts at the time.
"But politicians loved it," she said, pointing to legislation passed to clamp down on violent juveniles. "It was simple to buy into. If you believe a certain subset of kids are evil, it makes sense to build the capacity to hold those kids. The trouble was the data never supported that concept."
DiIulio, who briefly headed the Bush administration's "faith-based initiative," did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
The number of murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults by juveniles has fallen more than 36 percent since 1994 and continues to decline.
Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, said part of the reason for the decrease in violence is that communities created after-school programs and adopted other preventive measures.