Danger: ‘Superpredators’ Are Coming, Again!

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Boy holding a gun

As reported in an earlier blog, Victorian Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton claims that a rise in that state’s crime is largely attributable to the ‘Grand Theft Auto Generation’ – young criminals who mimic the stylised crimes in violent video games and other media.

Even more ominously, his deputy, Assistant Commissioner Robert Hill has announced: “What we are seeing is the emergence of this brazen offender, who has no regard for the law, no regard for authority, no regard for their safety”.

The dramatic rhetoric may sound familiar.

What are Superpredators?

The 1990s saw similar forecasts of an emergence in crimes by ‘superpredators’, described as:

“Radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage 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. They perceive hardly any relationship between doing right (or wrong) now and being rewarded (or punished) for it later. To these mean-street youngsters, the words “right” and “wrong” have no fixed moral meaning.”

In short, superpredators are young offenders with no regard for others, the law or authority – they’ll try to get what they want, when they want it, despite the risks and harm caused.

The First Coming of the Superpredator

The term superpredator was coined by former Princeton Political Science Professor John DiIulio to describe a supposed wave of ultra-violent young criminals poised to take over America’s streets in the 1990s. These were:

“kids that have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future…These are stone-cold predators!”.

“…fatherless, Godless, and jobless.”

The insidious group was predicted to cause chaos that, according to Professor DiIulio, “…probably cannot be defused.”

Even then first lady Hillary Clinton jumped on the superpredator bandwagon, declaring the group had “no conscience” and needed to be “brought to heel.”

Sensationalist media reporting led to a furious “tough on crime” campaign, giving police greater powers and passing harsh laws designed to combat the perceived threat.

Much Ado About Nothing?

Most now recognise that the hyped rhetoric and resulting hysteria was unfounded. Not only did crime by youth offenders decrease during and after these apocalyptic predictions, the bottom fell out of youth crime.

Based on faulty statistics and flawed analysis, the superpredator claims were fictional from the start, earning the dubious distinction of “the most damaging and erroneous myth propagated in the 100-year history of the juvenile justice system in the United States.”

A Cautionary Tale

So why are Australian police now trying to revive fears about superpredators?

To create a fictional enemy against which the public can unite? To foster the idea that police are our protectors? To increase government funding to police forces? To justify expanding police powers? Who knows…

The reality is that even the best-intentioned rhetoric can have adverse consequences.

Many believe the doomsday predictions were just a means to secure public support for proposed legislation which treats youth as adults, putting them through the adult criminal justice system and subjecting them to the same maximum penalties. Indeed, the hysteria saw a majority of States pass the laws, leading to a rise in incarceration rates.

US prisons now house 10,000 juveniles in adult prisons and jails on any given day.

The rise in private prisons also came about during this time, with private companies ploughing millions of dollars of ‘political donations’ into both major parties.

Lessons Learned

Many saw the superpredator hysteria as a missed opportunity for the United States to address the underlying causes of crime, rather than lock more people up for longer– and the country’s taxpayers have been paying for it ever since.

However, the experience may be an opportunity for Australia to learn from American policy mistakes.

Rather than targeting and alienating young people, perhaps governments should focus on initiatives which are designed to address underlying issues and give them some direction in life. Initiatives like justice reinvestment are doing just that, with positive results.

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