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Crying Wolf Over Teen Demons

Franklin E. Zimring is a law professor at UC Berkeley

There are special efforts this political season to focus citizen fear on a projected increase in youth crime in the United States over the next 10 to 15 years. Early this year, the Washington-based Council on Crime in America issued a report warning of “a coming storm of juvenile violence.” The House subcommittee on crime has just concluded a five-city road show on the prospects for a youth crime wave in the near future.

The biggest numbers and most specific policy recommendations on this pending juvenile crime wave come from Princeton professor John J. DiIulio, who predicts that about 270,000 more “juvenile superpredators” will be roaming the streets of America by 2010 than were present in 1990. DiIulio says there is a need for at least 150,000 new placements in juvenile secure confinement in the next five to seven years alone. Both the colorful language and sense of alarm in his message are of increasing political importance. Bob Dole injected both the term “superpredators” and alarming projections about 2010 into the presidential campaign in his July 6 national radio address. So it looks like a big year for juvenile crime fears.

It turns out, however, that the DiIulio projections are phony for two reasons. The phrase “juvenile superpredator” is meaningless because it has never been defined, although we know what a juvenile superpredator isn’t. It is not a juvenile killer, a rapist or a habitual armed robber. And the only way 270,000 more of these mythical creatures will be terrorizing the citizenry by 2010 is if infants or toddlers start committing armed robbery.

When asked the basis for this number, DiIulio points to studies that have shown about 6% of all boys are responsible for about half of all the police contacts with minors. In the most important study in Philadelphia, boys in this 6% were classified as chronic delinquents because they had five or more police contacts for any cause. Some of these Philadelphia kids had committed violent acts; many had not. In other studies set in smaller cities, almost no life-threatening violence showed up in the youth samples that were responsible for the majority of all police contacts. DiIulio’s assumption is that 6% of any population of young males constitutes an imminent danger to the public. No study of any youth population supports that projection of predatory violence.

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To arrive at the figure of 270,000 additional superpredators on our streets, DiIulio notes that the number of boys under 18 in the United States is expected to grow from 32 million to 36.5 million over the next 14 years. By assuming that serious delinquencies will be committed by 6% of that population, he finds an extra 270,000 superpredators.

But this is hogwash. If 6% of all males under 18 are superpredators, that means we currently have more than 1.9 million juvenile superpredators on our streets. We would hardly notice another 270,000 by 2010. But the estimate of current superpredators we obtain by this method is almost twice as many as the total number of kids referred to juvenile court last year.

What makes the DiIulio projection so bizarre is the assumption that children of all ages are dangerously crime prone. But 93% of all juvenile arrests for violence occur after age 13. Younger children don’t commit crimes. Yet more of DiIulio’s superpredators will be under age 6 in 2010 than over age 13. At Princeton, they are worried about desperados in diapers.

The point worth examining is that nobody seems to have given these numbers even five minutes of scrutiny in the peculiar policy climate of 1996. Indeed, there are incentives to come up with dramatic numbers for sound bites on the evening news.

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The ideological needs of the moment seem to be for a youth crime wave set in the future so that government can shadowbox against it by getting tough on juvenile crime in advance. It’s a “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” situation for the crime wave alarmists: They were right if crime rates go up; their policies can also be said to succeed even if the crime wave never happens.

There are more than a few parallels here with the domestic scare about communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If we find any communists hiding under our beds, the alarm was justified. If there are no communists under the bed, then the vigilance of citizens has saved the day.

The most frightening part of the saga of the superpredator is not the faulty arithmetic and conceptual sloppiness that produced the projections. Imaginary numbers are not rare in Washington these days. But this episode bears witness to a complete lack of quality control that afflicts contemporary debate on criminal justice policy. If politicians and analysts can believe in “superpredator” toddlers, they can believe in anything.


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