The “Superpredator” Myth: How Moral Panics Destroy Criminal Justice Reform
Robert ‘’Yummy” Sandifer had a miserable childhood. Born on the South Side of Chicago, he had a father who had been incarcerated for gun crimes for most of his childhood and a mother who was frequently arrested for drug-related and prostitution-related crimes. By the age of three, the local Child Protective Services department forcibly relocated him to live with his grandmother, but things didn’t get better as she had to care for a dozen other children in similar situations in addition to him. By the age of eight, Sandifer, nicknamed “Yummy” because of his sweet tooth, dropped out of school and joined a youth street gang that was very powerful in Chicago at the time, and began participating in vehicle thefts and burglaries at the age of nine.
When he was 11 years old, his gang told him to murder members of a rival gang, and Sandifer complied. On August 28, 1994, he fired several shots in the direction of the members, killing a 14-year-old girl, Shavon Dean, before fleeing the scene. Nevertheless, the police quickly tracked him down and launched a manhunt for him. Just before he was about to surrender to the police, he approached one of his neighbors and said he wanted to see his grandmother. The neighbor left him on the porch, and two members of the same street gang took advantage of the situation to lure Sandifer, executing him in an underpass under the guise of taking him to a safe place.
Both a perpetrator and a victim, Sandifer’s death shocked Chicago and sent the United States into a massive moral panic over juvenile delinquency. From a statistical standpoint, such concerns seemed justified: from 1985 to 1994, the juvenile murder rate nearly doubled. Although the incident was the highest-profile juvenile crime at the time, the media had already begun to make more and more noise about the problem and to urge the federal government to take more concrete action on juvenile crime reform.
Hidden in the push for more attention and punishment for juvenile crime is often a reason that cannot be directly stated: this trend threatens not only poor minority communities, but also wealthy white communities as well. In 1989, a dozen teenagers violently attacked several pedestrians in Central Park, and one of them raped a female jogger (the real perpetrator was confirmed many years after this rape case created the notorious Central Park Five false conviction). In 1993, 13-year-old Eric Smith raped a four-year-old boy in a park in New York State and then stoned him to death. The list of such horrifying crimes was endless, and in almost every case, it sparked a powerful moral panic about a potential youth crime boom.
And in the midst of this frenzy of demands for a crackdown, no term was more poignant than superpredators.
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.
By 1995, the initial legal clampdown on drug crimes that began under the Reagan years had shown clear and immediate negative effects, with an increasing number of minority families torn apart in the process, and a large number of nonviolent offenders receiving unequal sentences because of the stereotypes created by the color of their skin. DiIulio is one of the few in academia who rejects this view: not because he openly believes that racism in the justice system does not exist, but because he feels that the problem will never be solved if one chooses to approach juvenile delinquency with an attitude of reflection on the past.
A study of 10,000 boys born in 1945 once came to the shocking conclusion that 6 percent of boys would commit five or more crimes by the age of 18, accounting for half of all crimes. DiIulio cited this study and further noted that as the children of the “baby boom” generation began to grow up in the 1980s and 1990s, the sheer size of the population would mean an increase in potential offenders. DiIulio believes that his article is simply doing what needs to be done: warning society of the coming tide of juvenile crime. How scary is this tide? According to his own estimates, the number of delinquent youths will triple with each generation, and by 2010 there will be 270,000 more delinquent youths than in 1990.
At this point, DiIulio was assisted by two highly accomplished scholars in academia. One was James Q. Wilson, a well-known conservative political scientist and DiIulio’s doctoral dissertation advisor. The other was James A. Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who is known for his frequent interviews on crime shows. Analyzing demographic and crime data, they both coincided in coming to the frightening conclusion that the number of children about to grow into adolescents would mean an exponential increase in superpredators, and that American society was about to witness a “bloodbath”.
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.
At the time, politicians were very enthusiastic about the concept of superpredators as a provocative and seemingly logical chain of events, and politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties began to use this idea to advocate for harsher punitive measures. Many politicians, including 1996 Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole and then-Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, proposed a simple and straightforward solution to the problem of superpredators: whenever a juvenile is suspected of murder, rape, and other violent crimes, then he must be prosecuted and tried as an adult. In response to this trend, 45 state governments changed their laws against juvenile crimes in the 1990s, including the requirement that minors convicted of intentional murder must be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Not only that, but major mainstream media outlets have chosen to embrace the doctrine and have begun using the term “superpredators” on a wide scale. According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a nonprofit organization that monitors media performance, in 1995 and 1996, when the doctrine was at its most popular, some columns would fixate on crime figures on a daily basis, and would constantly agitate the “worst is yet to come” argument. From 1995 to 2000, the phrase was repeated 281 times by the mainstream media.
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.
However, the term superpredator continues to have an immeasurably negative impact on many minority families. Today, many activists who oppose disproportionate sentencing point out that the term is often virulently racist in the media and government contexts, and has led to many wrongful convictions. In its original meaning, predator is used to describe animals that prey and eat others. Describing a group of adolescents as immoral and animalistic is the most direct way to strip them of their humanity. This dehumanizing language has allowed the country to dismiss the fact that judges have sentenced children to die in prison without parole.
And in tracing the popularization of this term, many scholars have realized that DiIulio played a trick: he played on the masses’ fear of juvenile delinquency and, as opposed to placing his theory within the rigorous academic community of law and criminology for research and corroboration, he threw it directly to the people, the government, and the media that did not necessarily have sufficient knowledge of the relevant aspects, allowing their voices to do what he wanted to do.
In the academic world, the University of California, Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring, has strongly questioned DiIulio’s theory from the beginning. As early as 1996, he argued in his column that the panic over this potential wave of juvenile delinquency was a modern version of “crying wolf.” As a term that has never been precisely defined academically, the lack of a specific description limits the term itself only to creating mass moral panics. If the consequences of this moral panic on the people’s side were negligible, the ensuing change in the government’s laws led directly to mass incarceration, as a crime-fighting concept, to be once again being put on the agenda. Over time, Zimring has been proven right: the average rate of violent crime committed by juveniles is still much lower than that of adults, and is getting smaller.
However, the social sentiment that young people, especially preteens, may be prone to crime is still deeply embedded in the minds of many Americans. Both the Trevon Martin and Tamir Rice shootings in recent years have a similar starting point: those who chose to take the lives of these two innocent, Black minors claimed that their actions “may” have been intended as assaults. However, the double standard of racism means that such theories rarely affect white perpetrators. After 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse publicly killed two anti-racist protesters, many in the right-wing media refused to call Rittenhouse a “suprepredator” because of his pro-police status, and instead affectionately referred to him as “a little boy trying to protect his community.”
Pointless moral panic remains a fixture of the daily news cycle and life in America. Until more people are willing to acknowledge and understand the reasons behind their mistaken judgements and realize how they can avoid making such judgments again, America will continue to repeat this process and continue this unwarranted fear. And in the meantime, the American public will, unsurprisingly, repeatedly witness witch hunts against innocent people without knowing what to do, or even doing anything.
(To read more about juvenile crime trends, I strongly suggest people to read American Youth Violence by Franklin Zimring.)