Last summer, America seemed to have found its super-predator prototypes.
The discovery began in Chicago with the killing of an 11-year-old girl, Ryan Harris. Found in an alley on July 27, she had been bludgeoned to death and molested. Her bike was stolen.
The case drew little national notice — just another kid killed in a big city — until Aug. 10, when police announced that they had confessions from the killers: two black boys, ages seven and eight, from the South Side of Chicago, each about four feet tall and 60 pounds.
The arrests became top-of-the-broadcast news and sent a shivers across the country. Here were the “stone-cold predators” that Princeton political scientist John DiIulio Jr. had warned about — human harbingers from the
coming generation of the “young and the ruthless,” in the phrase of Northeastern University criminologist James Fox. These were the morally bereft members of “the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known,” that DiIulio, moralist William Bennett and crime expert John P. Walters wrote about in their 1996 book, “Body Count.”
The case appeared to confirm Americans’ worst fears about kids. “More and more, we are seeing child-play replaced with predatory behavior,” said a Chicago Sun-Times editorial.
There was one catch: DNA evidence showed the boys didn’t do it. Far from super-predators, they were victims of exploitive behavior by cops who talked them into a confession.
The case was “an embarrassing, unwarranted and diabolical rush to judgment” by the police, prosecutors, the media and the public, says R. Eugene Pincham, a retired judge from Chicago’s South Side. “It exploited the public’s anxieties about juvenile violence, and it reinforced this demonization of our children in black communities, this belief that they can and will do anything.”
To one degree or another, a dozen criminologists and youth advocates recently interviewed peg that demonization to a single term: “super-predator.” A Justice Department administrator and Fox himself say the word focused needed attention on a growing juvenile crime problem. But most others have little good to say about the headline-making term that sprang into the national crime lexicon three years ago.
The phrase has nettled crime experts, titillated journalists, inspired politicians, frightened citizens and apparently humbled its creator. Numerous experts call the “super-predator” scenario junk sociology, but the fingerprints of the word can be found all over national justice policy.
“We’re living with John DiIulio’s legacy,” says Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in Washington, D.C.
“We’re going to be living with the results of the super-predator thing for a very long time,” says Jerome K. Skolnick, co-director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at the New York University School of Law.
How did an idea that has been so discredited get so big?
Lineage of a Soundbite
DiIulio apparently first used the phrase in a Nov. 27, 1995, commentary in the conservative Weekly Standard under the headline, “The Coming of the Super-Predators.” But its genesis goes back to a study of delinquency among boys born in 1945 in Philadelphia. The study, published in 1972, reported that six percent of the boys had accumulated five or more police contacts before their 18th birthday. The conclusion: a small percentage of “chronic delinquents” is responsible for a high proportion of delinquency incidents.
Enter James Q. Wilson, a prominent conservative criminologist at UCLA (and DiIulio mentor) who has written about morality and crime for years. In 1995 Wilson predicted a crime spike in 2010, when the U.S. would have a half-million more adolescent males. Based on the six percent figure from the Philadelphia study, he predicted “30,000 more muggers, killers and thieves.”
DiIulio has said the Wilson projection confirmed his sense that young inmates today show “hardly a flicker of human emotion.” That fit with a conversation he’d had with an inmate at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex, who described juveniles there as “stone-cold predators.”
DiIulio ratcheted up Wilson’s prediction by coining “super-predator” in the Weekly Standard.
The phrase was introduced to a national audience in the Jan. 15, 1996, issue of Time under the headline, “Now For the Bad News: A Teenage Time Bomb.” The story, which quoted Fox and DiIulio, began, “They are just four, five and six years old right now, but already they are making criminologists nervous.”
Within months the phrase had appeared in scores of stories, and the idea that demographics preordained a future crime wave became political postulate, the starting point in a chain of policy changes and legislation.
Franklin Zimring, a University of California-Berkeley criminologist who has been acutely critical of DiIulio, says the Princeton professor employed an “exponential exaggeration” of Wilson’s work in changing the original “chronic delinquents” to “super-predators.” DiIulio increased Wilson’s estimate of 30,000 more “muggers, killers and thieves” to 270,000 through what Zimring calls “wild arithmetic” based upon population predictions.
In his 1997 book, “American Youth Violence,” a withering attack on the predictions of DiIulio and Wilson, Zimring calls the super-predator scenario “a classic case study of compounded distortion.”
Shay Bilchik, administrator of the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, says the juvenile super-predator hype “helped characterize a whole generation inappropriately, and it caused alarm beyond the level that was necessary to call the public’s attention to the problem.”
A 1997 article in the Pennsylvania Gazette (published by DiIulio’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania) says, “DiIulio now regrets using the term.”
Bilchik, however, adds that the exaggeration had a positive consequence: It focused the attention of the public and policymakers on juvenile justice. “Perhaps you need that kind of overstatement to grab attention,” says Bilchik, a former Miami prosecutor.
The super-predator headlines also grabbed the attention of politicians like U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), who wanted to attack juvenile crime with adult punishments. The super-predator hype gave the idea political capital, and is expected to be a centerpiece of a McCollum run for Senate next year.
Jeffrey Fagan of the Columbia University Law School says the get-tough political response was inevitable, with or without DiIulio. “He simply helped crystallize into a soundbite the politics of fear of adolescent violence that had driven policy since the mid-1970s,” Fagan says. But Schiraldi says DiIulio gave politicians a “rational veneer” for draconian measures against juveniles.
DiIulio has acknowledged as much. In a 1997 The Wall Street Journal commentary, he wrote, “Many of Washington’s dangerously deluded dogmas about crime have a conservative Republican pedigree, including the belief that most juvenile criminals are violent ‘super-predators’ who can be stopped by the threat of long, hard prison terms.” He did not mention his role in the development of the dogma.
That spread of that dogma has not hindered his career. He was a hard-charging Harvard-educated political scientist at Princeton before “super-predator,” but he had almost no profile in the popular media. The phrase made him a crime-policy media star, with frequent quotations in the country’s most prominent newspapers, a leather-jacketed photograph in Time, and two profiles in The New Yorker.
In interviews DiIulio has said that, having predicted a juvenile crime wave, he now feels compelled to work on stopping it. He works part time at Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based national organization that seeks social solutions through research, technical assistance and evaluation.
(DiIulio declined to speak with Youth Today. Cindy Terrels, his assistant at P/PV, wrote, “Kindly be advised that because of already scheduled academic, civic, research, and other previously scheduled commitments, John DiIulio is completely unable to accept additional conferences, interviews, travel or other work through the end of this year or until further notice.”)
DiIulio and Fox have testified before Congress about crime and, like many academic researchers, have received government research grants to explore their theories. In 1992, for instance, DiIulio received a $134,751 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to work with other criminal justice researchers in producing four discussion papers about “outcome measures of the criminal justice system.” In 1995 and 1997, Fox received two BJS grants totaling $229,680 to study homicide trends and the measurement of assaultive behavior.
Fox, president of the American Society of Criminology, had a higher media profile than DiIulio before the super-predator hype. He tells Youth Today that he has no regrets about his role in the super-predator publicity. Fox often was quoted in news stories as a buttress for DiIulio’s prediction, although he notes that he never used the “predator” image for juvenile criminals because, Fox says, most teenage criminals are impulsive lawbreakers. True predators, he says, are serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
But Fox acknowledges his other contributions to the youth violence sloganeering, such as the coming “bloodbath” and “the young and the ruthless.”
“As far as things like ‘bloodbath,’ the intention was to give a wake-up call,” Fox says. “And to those who say I was alarmist, maybe that was partly purposeful. We needed an alarm. We had become disinvested from kids. . . . It really wasn’t until DiIulio and I began to talk frequently about juvenile crime that this began to get some attention.” He adds that he and DiIulio may deserve some credit for the recent decline in youth crime.
“I don’t apologize for the fact that people began to pay attention to the issue of juvenile violence,” he says. “I was describing something that was happening. The epidemic of youth homicides in the late 1980s and early 1990s was not something I imagined. It was real.”
Fox has a reputation as being media-friendly, and he says he understands that many of his peers “disdain” his propensity for soundbites. “You can say something catchy, but it can be correct,” he says. “I don’t apologize at all for the language I used.”
Fox published a primer for criminologists entitled, “How to Work With the Media.” He says many criminologists have difficulty dealing with the media because the nuances, caveats and conditions that accompany so much research do not translate well in a 750-word news article or a 90-second broadcast report. The provocative quotes, not the caveats, get the ink and airtime, he notes.
Fox says that he never predicted a crime spike — only that demographics would create an inflated group of potential criminals. Was that one of the caveats that got lost to the soundbite, and was the super-predator hype an example of why careful criminology and popular media do not mix? “That’s a good question,” he says.
Due at least in part to the work of Fox and DiIulio, youth advocates say, juvenile justice policy in the past few years has been changed to amend or eliminate many of the reforms instituted during the Progressive Era, championed by Republican President Teddy Roosevelt a century ago. A system that leaned toward rehabilitation, confidentiality and forgiveness for youthful indiscretion now favors accountability, responsibility and punishment.
In his 1999 book, “Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court,” author Barry C. Feld writes, “The political demonization of young black males as morally impoverished ‘super-predators’ and the depiction of delinquents as responsible offenders have eroded the Progressives’ social construction of ‘childhood’ innocence and vulnerability.”
Since 1990, virtually every state has increased sanctions against juvenile offenders. Zimring notes that it could have been worse. Rep. McCollum’s 1996 juvenile crime proposal was initially entitled the “Violent Youth Predator Act,” and included these Congressional “findings”: “No population poses a larger threat to public safety than young adult criminals,” and “The criminal justice system is simply not prepared to face tomorrow’s wave of violent young people.” Moderate Republicans interceded and tempered the language.
While McCollum’s incendiary warnings did not make it into federal law, they repeatedly turn up in legislative backgrounders on juvenile crime. A juvenile justice primer published by the National Conference of State Legislatures cites DiIulio’s rhetoric about the coming “fatherless, godless and jobless” generation. It intones, “The outlook for juvenile crime over the next 10 years is ominous.”
An “issue brief” on juvenile crime distributed by the House Republican Conference cites the same dire predictions for a crime wave by the year 2010. The document says, “No other age group poses a larger threat to our public’s safety than juvenile criminals.”
Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh says some of his fellow criminologists grind their teeth when they read such primers, and that many who have toiled in the trenches of careful research resent the attention paid to DiIulio. “The good news,” says Zimring, “is that good research eventually catches up with bad research, as it has in this case.”
James C. (Buddy) Howell, former director of the Justice Department’s National Institute for Juvenile Justice Research, says DiIulio and his followers proved to be juvenile crime dilettantes. He says the political scientist failed to understand that there have been a half-dozen periods of moral panic in America about lawlessness among “the kids nowadays....There was no measured thinking or analysis because it was something new to them. They had no context.”
According to an Amnesty International USA survey, more than 11,000 children are in U.S. prisons and other adult correctional facilities. Schiraldi says that number is likely to increase due to the super-predator-inspired changes in federal and state laws that allow younger teenagers to be charged as adults. “The ability to pander to people’s worst emotions seems to know no bounds at this point,” Schiraldi says.
Rep. McCollum has introduced a proposal to increase penalties for nonviolent juvenile offenses such as vandalism “to send them a message the first time they break the law,” according to a spokeswoman. The proposal includes new incentive grants for states to copy the federal law. A spokeswoman for the House Republican Conference says juvenile crime legislation is not a priority for the new chairman, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.
DiIulio, meanwhile, recently published a commentary in the Brookings Review that calls for a more rational approach to federal crime legislation, with less “federal nannying” of the states, such as the incentives proposed by Rep. McCollum.
DiIulio writes, “Federal lawmakers should resist the trend toward federalizing crime prevention and control in this country. The 106th Congress should declare a moratorium on federal crime policy, and the White House should comply.”
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Krajicek, David J. "‘Super-Predators’: The Making Of a Myth." Youth Today, April 1999, p. 1.
©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.