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April 9, 2014

Retro Report provides reminder of "When Youth Violence Spurred ‘Superpredator’ Fear."

WeeklyStandard-1995nov27The New York Times together with Retro Report puts together articles and videos looking back a media coverage and the aftermath of high-profile stories of years gone by. The latest production is available here under the headline "hen Youth Violence Spurred ‘Superpredator’ Fear." Here are excerpts from the article that goes along with the great 10-minute video on the topic:

Social scientists like James A. Fox, a criminologist, warned of “a blood bath of violence” that could soon wash over the land. That fear, verging on panic, is the subject of this week’s segment of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries that examine major news stories from years ago and explore what has happened since.

What happened with the superpredator jeremiads is that they proved to be nonsense. They were based on a notion that there would be hordes upon hordes of depraved teenagers resorting to unspeakable brutality, not tethered by conscience. No one in the mid-1990s promoted this theory with greater zeal, or with broader acceptance, than John J. DiIulio Jr., then a political scientist at Princeton. Chaos was upon us, Mr. DiIulio proclaimed back then in scholarly articles and television interviews. The demographics, he said, were inexorable. Politicians from both major parties, though more so on the right, picked up the cry. Many news organizations pounced on these sensational predictions and ran with them like a punt returner finding daylight.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Instead of exploding, violence by children sharply declined. Murders committed by those ages 10 to 17 fell by roughly two-thirds from 1994 to 2011, according to statistics kept by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Mugged by reality, a chastened Mr. DiIulio has offered a mea culpa. “Demography,” he says, “is not fate.” The trouble with his superpredator forecast, he told Retro Report, is that “once it was out there, there was no reeling it in.”

It certainly had consequences. It energized a movement, as one state after another enacted laws making it possible to try children as young as 13 or 14 as adults... Many hundreds of juveniles were sent to prison for life, though in the last few years the United States Supreme Court has ruled that such sentences must not be automatic, even in murder cases. Individual circumstances and possible mitigating factors should be weighed, the justices said....

The superpredator scare fit neatly with a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to rising crime that had taken hold even before the ‘90s. Many states are now moving in the opposite direction, if only because incarceration is expensive, in both its human toll and its burden on strapped government budgets....

Fears about predators, super or not, have not entirely disappeared. Of late, some are concerned about what is called “the knockout game.” It involves a young man or group of young men punching a stranger on the street. This is cast essentially as a black-on-white crime, perhaps a gang initiation rite. No question, such assaults have taken place. But are they part of an organized “game”? In New York, the police seem unsure if they amount to more than isolated incidents.

As for superpredators, not everyone has abandoned the notion. In the ‘90s, Mr. DiIulio called those youngsters “remorseless” and “impulsive,” describing them as unburdened by “pangs of conscience.” Hmm, said Richard Eskow. Or words to that effect. Mr. Eskow, a senior fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future, wrote for The Huffington Post two years ago that he knew a group of people who matched those very descriptions. They were, he said, the reckless bankers and Wall Street high rollers who almost brought the United States economy to its knees a few years ago.

April 9, 2014 at 01:35 PM | Permalink


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This is great! We have so many predictors/prognosticators/pundits, but so few people looking at their accuracy. Very few people do this -- for example, Gregg Easterbrook used to do a "Bad Predictions Review" at the end of the football season for his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column. Philip Tetlock wrote a book "Expert Political Judgment" where he found that the predictions of so-called experts in the fields of politics, economics, social science, etc. were hardly better than someone who was picking outcomes at random. And Andrew Sullivan does his "Dick Morris Award." But these examples are few and far between.

We need more retrospective looks at predictors. I predict(!) think that people will be amazed at how stunningly wrong so many people can be, and how these people keep getting called back to give more predictions.

Posted by: PDB | Apr 9, 2014 2:49:08 PM

/ “In the ‘90s, Mr. DiIulio called those youngsters “remorseless” and “impulsive,” describing them as unburdened by “pangs of conscience.”” \

“April 7, 2014, DETROIT, MI -- It's yet to be known if the beating was fatal.
Utash, a father of three, is still clinging to life in critical condition, Detroit police said.”

“Grandfather Steve Utash, 54, was brutally beaten by a gang of men … several black males from their late teens to their early 20s quickly descend on the scene …
which saw about a dozen vigilantes beat Utash, even stealing his wallet before leaving him injuries severe enough to cause bleeding on the brain -
he is still in a medically induced coma.” -- By Daily Mail Reporter, & Gus Burns | [email protected]

 Apt description, one might say?

Posted by: Adamakis | Apr 9, 2014 4:46:07 PM

So what's the point here? That harsh incarceration policies prevented fewer preventable crimes by imposing tough sentences on juvenile criminals than was predicted?

There are a lot of people who are breathing today because we got back to basics on dealing with horrible crimes.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 10, 2014 12:28:29 AM

I would love the NY Times to go back and do "retrospectives" on their own coverage. Support for eugenics. Support for Hitler and Mussolini (until Hitler turned on the Soviets). Support for Stalin, including whitewashing the pogroms and the intentional starving of the Ukraine. Being wrong on just about every foreign policy decision of the cold war. There is a lifetime worth of material and a Pulitzer if they do it.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 10, 2014 10:03:43 AM

I wonder if there are any cognates to this 'superpredator' moniker in the news today? Is there a particular group that is being used as fear-inducing as to spur useless laws aimed at creating a sense of security among the public?

I am, of course, being sarcastic. But whether its Satanic practice scares brought on in part by the West Memphis Three, or these 'superpredators', sensationalistic news and politicians constantly use fear to subjugate our citizenry through more policies and laws that curtail civil rights.

"They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
       -Benjamin Franklin (Reply to the Pennsylvania Governor, 1755)

Posted by: Eric | Apr 10, 2014 11:10:33 AM

Eric stated: "Is there a particular group that is being used as fear-inducing as to spur useless laws..."

Yes, "executed innocents." They are a made up group but a group nonetheless.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 10, 2014 12:08:32 PM


Although my goal was to spotlight fear-mongering and bad laws on felons (in the realm of disenfranchisement) and registered sex offenders (take your pick of laws/restraints), your point is taken.

I'm not so sure that new laws are being written for the "executed innocents" so much as the DP debate (war?) is being waged outside of legislation. Its being fought by pharmacies who won't sell the lethal drugs to states, by defense attorneys who successfully win suits to provide precedent (good or bad), etc.

This is a sincere question: Are there proposed laws that I'm unaware of which curtail specific civil rights (First, Second, Fourth Amendments) in the same way that felon disenfranchisement and sex offender laws currently are?

To Bill, federalist, and other estimable participants in the comments sections here: I realize I'm "stepping in it" with mentioning felon disenfranchisement, but that issue hits on voting laws and the second amendment so I felt it prudent to include it. The issue of whether those laws are bad laws as a result of fear-mongering is up for much more debate than blanket sex offender laws, but its nevertheless out there.

Posted by: Eric | Apr 10, 2014 12:26:10 PM

"those laws" which disenfranchise convicted
serious criminals, are the result of the intellectual
and moral stalwarts known as our "founding fathers".

As they were very fond of state rights as proved by the 10th Amend., all you need to do to change the status quo,
Eric, is to convince your state representatives, or to promote a ballot initiative if available.
(note that many liberals and all race mongers are already convinced)

Posted by: Adamakis | Apr 10, 2014 6:04:09 PM

adamakis I call BULLSHIT on this!

"those laws" which disenfranchise convicted
serious criminals, are the result of the intellectual
and moral stalwarts known as our "founding fathers".

can we remember just WHAT they considered a serious criminal.

TREASON, MURDER and a very few others. that's why they didn't have many prisons. Most spent a little time in the local jail or for the stocks! then they went on their way with the same rights as anyone else.

carry a gun! and so on.

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 11, 2014 3:03:02 PM

Then join with the Tea Party movement and return America
to the philosophy of the Founders. (& convince your state to adjust rules regarding which felonies preclude voting)

Posted by: Adamakis | Apr 11, 2014 9:55:42 PM

and why would I want to join the "tea Party" just another useless bunch of treasonous lieing politicians. Long past time to shoot the whole bunch and start with a new batch where the first qualification to run would be

"Have never worked for any govt agency in your life"

plus you realize the smart assed comeback just proves you can't come up with a real argument against my statement since there is too much proof that up till the JFK killing and the follow up laws passed after it. pretty much all criminals kept their weapons and their right to vote.

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 13, 2014 1:57:13 AM

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