The “Superpredator” Myth: How Moral Panics Destroy Criminal Justice Reform

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The Birth of a Myth

The earliest and most important advocate of this idea was a then-young political scientist at Princeton University, John J. DiIulio. In DiIulio’s view, the government’s “political correctness” in dealing with crime was condoning these young people’s path to criminality. Superpredators, as defined by the media and politicians, are often a group of extremely violent juvenile criminals who kill, rape or maim on a whim. Their purpose for doing so is not even clear to them, and they do not have any view or expectation of the future. To support his theory, DiIulio visited several major prisons in the United States and came to the desperate conclusion that these people cannot be saved. In the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, DiIulio argues that although many Americans grow up in an environment where they are emotionally and spiritually capable of knowing right from wrong, there is always a percentage of each generation of young people, especially young boys, who will go on to commit violent crimes. The reason for this path is “moral poverty”: growing up surrounded by violent adults in an abusive, violent, fatherless, faithless and jobless environment, these young people are inevitably led to further depravity.

The Success of a Myth

DiIulio’s article eventually became the cornerstone of social opinion and many media discussions and views on juvenile delinquency in the 1990s. In terms of communication, DiIulio’s article was undoubtedly a huge success: he introduced the term at a time when American society was becoming preoccupied with urban decay, and it was clear that in the eyes of the U.S. government, which had just passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, there was no time like the present to use harsh means to eradicate the crime problem. And since it’s a harsh tool, mass incarceration will replace the crime trend and stop these superpredators from committing crime.

The Myth Waned, The Damages Lasted

The worst never came; instead of an increase in juvenile crime, there was a downward trend that has continued to this day, for different reasons. In the 1990s, as economic conditions improved and the flow of crack cocaine waned, juvenile delinquency began to decline gradually from 1995, and by 2000, the number of crimes was only about 1/3 of what it had been in 1995. by 2001, DiIulio publicly admitted his mistake and announced that he would not make any future predictions about crime trends; in 2012, he and Fox provided the Supreme Court with an amicus brief in which they thoroughly rejected their original theory and supported resentencing in the case of two minor offenders who had received mandatory life sentences without parole for their murder convictions.



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Allen Huang

#AAJA member, student freelancer, sometimes writes unpopular opinions.