“They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience, no empathy,” Hillary Clinton said in a 1996 speech about crime given at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. “We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
Those remarks, which referenced a now-discredited theory of crime popular in the 1990s, caused Clinton trouble on Wednesday when a Black Lives Matter activist challenged her on them.
“I’m not a superpredator, Hillary Clinton,” activist Ashley Williams said at a fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina, while the candidate spoke. “Can you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?”
The superpredator theory of crime, most ardently championed by political scientist John DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, hinged on the 99% increase in youth homicides between 1980 and 1994. That increase would continue unabated as the teenaged population increased, the theory said. By the year 2000, Dilulio predicted, certain young criminals — “superpredators” — would be committing around 6,000 murders a year, twice the 1995 rate. Dilulio’s mentor, the political scientist James Q. Wilson, wrote that “there will be a million more people between the ages of 14 and 17 than there are now [by 2000]. ... Six percent of them will become high rate, repeat offenders — thirty thousand more young muggers, killers and thieves than we have now. Get ready.”
Clinton’s superpredators speech came two years after the passage of a 1994 federal crime bill that added $10 billion for prison building, the crest of a tough-on-crime political wave that started in the 1970s. The bill was supported by both then-President Bill Clinton and then-Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont, now Hillary Clinton’s rival for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination.
Dilulio’s predictions never came to pass. The homicide wave had actually peaked in the early 1990s, and youth violent crime rates are lower than historical norms now.
“The superpredator theory was always bullshit,” criminal justice researcher Franklin Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley, told BuzzFeed News. “It was political rhetoric cloaking a movement that wanted to lock more people up.”
Even in 1996, when Clinton made her remarks, Zimring and other criminologists suggested that the idea of an ever-increasing homicide rate was based on a fallacy that somehow some kids were just born criminals, and that children under 13 were somehow included in this cohort of super criminals. “They are worried about desperados in diapers,” he wrote that year in the Los Angeles Times.
“I will say plenty of criminologists were skeptical of John Dilulio and myself, even then,” criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston, who had also projected a stark increase in youth homicides in the era, told BuzzFeed News. When crime rates dropped precipitously in the late 1990s the entire field dropped the idea, he said.
DiIulio had repudiated the theory by 2001, when he joined the Bush administration. ''I'm sorry for any unintended consequences,'' DiIulio then told the New York Times. ''But I am not responsible for teenagers' going to prison.'”
Fox said white teens as well as black were the focus of superpredator worries. But the racial dimension of the fears was also readily apparent. Dilulio wrote that “as many as half of these juvenile super-predators could be young black males” in a 1996 City Journal essay.
Although the 1994 crime bill included funds for building prisons, it also included $9 billion for crime prevention programs, Fox said, notably after-school programs. “I wouldn’t blame Clinton or any other politician for using the term back then,” said Fox, who advised Clinton in her 2008 campaign. “It was in the air, used widely by the media as well.”
He added that in White House talks he attended in the late 1990s, the focus was on crime prevention programs, not building jails.
Zimring, of Berkeley, said the Clintons went along with the superpredator movement in the 1990s in an attempt to neutralize crime as a campaign issue: "There were a lot of politicians who knew better, who experts were telling [the superpredator idea] was wrong, but they wanted to get re-elected so they went along with it."
On Thursday, Hillary Clinton told the Washington Post, “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
“I think the real question for the black community is not what she said then, but what her perception is today,” Angela Peoples, co-director of GetEqual, an LBGT activism organization, and an active participant in Black Lives Matter, told BuzzFeed News.
In light of the rise of Black Lives Matter, she said, “Right now is the right moment, after a lot of lip service to the black community, for all politicians to talk about how this kind of rhetoric has done real damage.”