‘The Coming of the Superpredators’

February 26, 2015

Photo by Steve Davis, at a Washington State juvenile correctional facility.

Earlier,  we showed how criminologists of the 1970s largely abandoned the idea of rehabilitation. A sweeping review found no evidence that rehabilitation programs were reducing recidivism. This scholarship fueled a wave of reforms that shifted the juvenile justice system away from rehabilitation, and emphasized instead incapacitation, deterrence and retribution.

Expand Bibliography

  • Howell, James C. Preventing and Reducing Juvenile Delinquency: A Comprehensive Framework. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 2008.
  • Dilulio Jr., John. “The Coming of the Super-Predators” The National Review 27 Nov. 1995.
  • McCord, Joan, Cathy Spatz Widom, and Nancy A. Crowell. Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice. Panel on Juvenile Crime: Prevention, Treatment, and Control. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.
  • United States. Department of Justice. Trying Juveniles as Adults: An Analysis of State Transfer Laws and Reporting. National Report Series Bulletin. Washington: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,  2001.

This trend intensified throughout the 80s and early 90s. Between 1987 and 1995, juvenile violent crime rates skyrocketed. In 1995, a political scientist named John J. Dilulio Jr. forecasted that juvenile crime rates would soar even higher. He thought that the problem would be so bad that simply writing academic papers and books would not be enough—the public had to know about this. In 1995, he wrote an article in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard warning of “the coming of the super-predators.”

“All of the research indicates that Americans are sitting atop a demographic crime bomb. And all of those who are closest to the problem hear the bomb ticking,” wrote Dilulio.

Dilulio had been studying prisons since 1980. But, a few years before publishing this article, he decided he could no longer conduct research on juveniles. He describes looking into their “vacant stares” and  “remorseless eyes” and becoming too frightened and too depressed to study them (Dilulio 1995).

Dilulio identified what he thought was a demographic time bomb. In 1995, there were 40 million children under the age of 10 (the largest number in decades). According to Dilulio, one study of 10,000 boys in Philadelphia showed that 6% of the boys committed 5 or more crimes. The 6% accounted for half of all the serious crimes in that cohort.

‘6% do 50%’ became the media’s mantra. Dilulio cited two doctors who predicted that 500,000 more boys between the age of 14 and 17 would mean 30,000 more murders, rapists, and muggers. This 6%, according to Dilulio, was a “new breed” of offender that had no respect for human life, no morality or conscience, and no humanity.

Based on his conservative theory of crime, Dilulio claimed that these trends would continue. He also explained his projected trend through a “theory of moral poverty.” According to Dilulio, this 6% grow up without emotionally and spiritually grounding parents.

“In the extreme, moral poverty is the poverty of growing up surrounded by deviant, delinquent, and criminal adults in abusive, violence-ridden, fatherless, Godless, and jobless settings. In sum, whatever their material circumstances, kids of whatever race, creed, or color are most likely to become criminally depraved when they are morally deprived.”

How would we disarm this ticking time bomb? According to Dilulio, the answer was religion:

“My one big idea is borrowed from three well-known child-development experts — Moses, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed. It’s called religion. If we are to have a prayer of stopping any significant fraction of the super-predators short of the prison gates, then we had better say ‘Amen,’ and fast.” Next, we review Dilulio’s projections and their effect on policy.



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