Jan
01
1998

Superscapegoating

Teen 'superpredators' hype set stage for draconian legislation

Criminalization of youth of color by the media is not a new problem. But lurid press reports of teen "superpredators" have recently spawned federal legislation that may soon extinguish the rehabilitative intent of the juvenile justice system. Proposed laws have passed the House and are now pending in the Senate that would try 13- and 14-year-olds as adults and route people as young as 13 into adult prisons.

Princeton professor John DiIulio invented the myth of the "juvenile superpredator" in the early 1990s, forecasting that 270,000 of these menaces to society will be out on the streets by 2010 (City Journal, Spring/96). The "superpredator" derives from age-based explanations of crime posited by DiIulio in league with other conservative academics, including Northeastern University's James Fox and UCLA's James Wilson. Much of their work is the functional equivalent of racist speculation about criminality popularized by eugenicists a century ago. Demography is destiny, the theory goes, and today's press and politicians employ it to keep the suburbs afraid of young men of color in the inner cities.

For its proponents, the beauty of the "superpredator" concept is its convenient adaptability. Whether the report of the hour says crime is up or down, whether youth crime rates soar or plummet, the "superpredator" threat warrants ever-tougher tough-on-crime measures. "Don't be fooled by the rosy numbers in this week's crime reports," Susan Estrich warned in her USA Today column (5/9/96). "The tsunami is coming. . . . Juvenile crime is going up and getting worse." If this language isn't sufficiently evocative of doom, try Time's headline (1/15/96): "Now for the Bad News: A Teenage Timebomb." The article that follows begins: "They are just four, five and six years old now, but already they are making criminologists nervous."

Even if the threat is on a more distant horizon, it remains imminent: "They are called superpredators. They are not here yet, but they are predicted to be a plague upon the United States in the next decade. They are not some creature from outer space; they are our own children." (Tampa Tribune, 5/21/96) Some media accounts, meanwhile, ignore crime trends altogether and use a single incident of youth violence to frame the threat as an immediate reality. A murder committed by two 15-year-olds in Central Park, for instance, suggests that "America is being threatened by a growing cadre of cold-blooded teens called 'superpredators.'" (Christian Science Monitor, 6/2/97) The danger has even made international headlines: "The Invasion of the Superpredators," declared the London Times (2/16/97), has burdened the United States with children capable of "remorseless brutality."

Inverting the evidence

"Superpredator" projections make great soundbites and bait for people to tune in at 11. They are, however, statistically inaccurate measurements of present, past or future crime trends. DiIulio's claims, inflated to unchallengeable fact by most media, don't hold up under the lightest scrutiny.

Levels of violent crime in the United States over the past 25 years, as reported in annual FBI crime reports, have been negatively correlated to the proportion of men aged 15 to 24—that is, more young people in the population has meant lower rates of violent crime. As reported crime rates rose through the '70s and '80s, the percentage of young people in the population was falling significantly.

"This episode bears witness to a complete lack of quality control that afflicts contemporary debate on criminal justice policy," University of California Law Professor Franklin Zimring complained in an exceptional opinion piece (Los Angeles Times, 8/19/96). "If politicians and analysts can believe in 'superpredators,' they can believe in anything."

Hype about criminal-minded teen "superpredators" has added fuel to an ongoing media fire. A 1996 report by the Berkeley Media Studies Group found that more than half of local news stories on youth involved violence, and more than two-thirds of the violence stories concerned young people under age 25 (American Journal of Public Health, 8/97)—even though 57 percent of violent crime is committed by people aged 25 and over. (Eighty percent is committed by adults over 18.) This media fixation with youth crime has set a tone for public policy.

Hype into law

Rallied by the media, legislators have sounded the alarm that we must prepare ourselves for the attack of the "superpredator." In May, a bill originally titled the "Violent Youth Predator Act" passed the U.S. House of Representatives; it allows 14-year-olds to be tried as adults and offers $1.5 billion in law enforcement block grants to states that toughen their laws in compliance with federal standards. The Senate version would weaken national protections against jailing juveniles with adults, require states to try juveniles as adults in order to be eligible for federal funding, and allow the federal government to execute people as young as 16.

Media claims that harsh action is needed regardless of whether youth crime is up or down have helped inoculate the legislation from criticism. Just as criticism of DiIulio's theories has received only token mention in the mainstream press, legislation to fund non-punitive programs that support youth has achieved scant attention.

Also seldom mentioned in the press are the legislation's dangerous implications. According to the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, youth incarcerated with adults are more likely to commit crimes again, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by prison staff and 50 times more likely to be attacked by a weapon than youth held in juvenile facilities. But from reading the New York Times, you might think it's the other way around. The Times (6/24/97) printed New Mexico Secretary of Public Safety Darren White's claim that "when some of these kids are convicted as adults and put into our adult prison, they intimidate the older prisoners."

While media inflation of the "superpredator" threat has helped legitimize the legislation, DiIulio himself has publicly distanced himself from it (Wall Street Journal, 6/11/97): "My central argument about superpredators is that these more savage than salvageable young criminals could not and should not be punished into submission." DiIulio favors a "small government" approach and believes that churches should intervene to try and save "Godless" children before it's too late.

It seems that media coverage has whipped up support for draconian legislation that even the inventor of "superpredators" does not endorse.

Robin Templeton is a program associate with the Beat Within, a writing program in Bay Area juvenile jails sponsored by Pacific News Service.