By John Kelly, ChronicleofSocialChange.org
Twenty years ago, in a speech at Keene State College in New Hampshire, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton made a comment about juvenile crime. Discussing the need for a top-level fight against gangs that harkened the mob-busting of previous decades, Clinton told reporters that “they are not just gangs of kids anymore.”
“They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators,’ ” Clinton continued. “No conscience, no empathy; we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
The term super-predator was coined by author John DiIulio in a book that foresaw an America done in by child armies. From “Moral Poverty – and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs”:
“America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ‘super-predators’ – radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more pre-teenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders. They do not fear the stigma of arrest, the pains of imprisonment or the pangs of conscience … At core the problem is that most inner-city children grow up surrounded by teenagers and adults who are themselves deviant, delinquent and criminal.”
DiIulio’s prose was based largely on the predictions of researcher James Alan Fox, who had forecasted a “bloodbath of teenage violence” coming in the 1990s and beyond.
None of the super-predator/bloodbath stuff turned out to be true, of course. Juvenile crime, and specifically violent crime, plummeted in the United States after the racially tinged prognostications of the time.
DiIulio, who would go on to lead the newly established Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for George W. Bush, had publicly disavowed the super-predator comment by 2001. Fox pretty much immediately backed off his comments, conceding in a 1996 USA Todaycolumn that “I never meant there would be a blood bath. Some of it was part of getting people’s attention.”
Clinton was publicly mum on the topic for 20 years until this year’s presidential primaries, when a young protestor disrupted a fundraiser to challenge on the subject. Clinton responded in a statement to The Washington Post the next day:
“Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today. My life’s work has been about lifting up children and young people who’ve been let down by the system or by society, kids who never got the chance they deserved. And unfortunately today, there are way too many of those kids, especially in African-American communities. We haven’t done right by them. We need to.”
In the years since the super-predator forecast, some of the harshest punishments handed down to juveniles have been rolled back. Since 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court has separately ruled the following things to be unconstitutional:
- Death penalty for juveniles.
- Juveniles getting life without parole for any crime other than a homicide.
- Juveniles automatically getting life without parole under any state sentencing guideline.
In addition, several states have reconsidered their age of jurisdiction. Massachusetts and Illinois no longer consider 17-year-olds to be adults in the eyes of the law; Connecticut used to consider 16- and 17-year-olds to be adults.