November 27th, 1995

False Myth of the "Super-Predator”

On November 27, 1995, the Weekly Standard published an article by Princeton University political science professor John Dilulio, entitled “The Coming of the Super-Predators,” in which he predicted there would be 270,000 violent youth in the United States by 2010. He reasoned that growing rates of “moral poverty” caused aggressive behavior among poor and minority youth.

“Super-predator” language came to be commonly used in conjunction with dire predictions that a vast increase in violent juvenile crime was occurring or about to occur. Theorists suggested that we would soon see “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and who “have absolutely no respect for human life.” Much of the frightening imagery was racially coded. For example, Dilulio in "My Black Crime Problem, and Ours," City Journal (1996), warned about “270,000 more young predators on the streets than in 1990, coming at us in waves over the next two decades . . . as many as half of these juvenile super-predators could be young black males”.

Panic over the impending crime wave expected from these “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless” children led nearly every state to enact legislation mandating automatic adult prosecution for children, permitting sentences of life without parole or death for children, and/or allowing children to be housed with adult prisoners.

The predictions proved wildly inaccurate. Lower rates of juvenile crime from 1994 to 2000 despite simultaneous increases in the juvenile population led academics who had originally supported the “super-predator” theory to back away from their predictions, including Dilulio himself. In 2001, the United States Surgeon General labeled the “super-predator” theory a myth.

Efforts to reverse the policies that grew from the "super-predator" myth have seen some success in the Supreme Court, which in 2005 decided in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty is unconstitutional for juveniles. In 2010, the Court in Graham v. Florida prohibited life imprisonment without parole sentences for children convicted of non-homicide crimes. And in 2012, the Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama invalidated mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide. Meaningful implementation of these decisions, as well as further reform, remains an ongoing effort and challenge.