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Lesson Plan

The Moral Panic Over “Super-Predators”

About this Video
This 10-minute video chronicles the origins of the superpredator myth of the 1990s, and how that flawed prediction gave rise to a moral panic that was used by politicians in both parties to justify changes to the criminal justice system that imposed harsh new penalties on youthful offenders that landed disproportionately on minority offenders. Focusing on the highly inaccurate predictions that fueled public fears, the video provides students with useful context on the politics, race relations, and demographic changes of the 1990s.
Content Advisory: This video includes discussion of rape and murder.
Students will learn
  • How experts predicted that a new class of youthful offenders known as superpredators would give rise to a massive increase in juvenile crime and violence in the late 1990s.
  • How politicians used the research underlying these predictions to generate a nationwide moral panic and justify dramatic changes in the criminal justice system that disproportionately affected black youths.
  • How and why the experts’ predictions proved to be incorrect.
Combating the Myth of the Superpredator
Subjects
  • Civics & Government
  • Journalism
  • U.S. History
Topics
  • 1990s America
  • Bill Clinton
  • Criminal Justice
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Domestic Policies
  • Media Literacy
  • News Literacy
  • Race in America
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • War on Drugs
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

In 1994, the killing of an 11-year-old boy in Chicago by teenage members of his own gang triggered a national panic that violence was spinning out of control.

Princeton Professor John DiIulio Jr. had extensively studied the criminal justice system, and predicted that as the number of teenagers increased, crime rates would snowball into a national crisis by 2000.

He wrote up his thoughts in an article for The Weekly Standard in 1995 and coined a term that struck fear: “superpredators” – impulsive juveniles, lacking moral conscience, who would kill without a second thought.

The news media quickly adopted the term and fear became part of the national dialogue. To prevent the predicted crime wave, 48 states would eventually enact laws to crack down on juvenile offenders, making it easier to prosecute them as adults and impose severe penalties.

But even as the laws rolled out, juvenile crime rates were dropping. By the late 1990s, it was clear that DiIulio’s dire predictions were wrong. The juvenile crime rate didn’t double and then double again; it dropped – by half. The superpredator idea was wrong. But there was no quick way to pull back the legislative changes.

The revelation shook DiIulio’s faith in social science and rekindled an interest in traditional religion that led him into faith-based community initiatives. But his change of heart came too late to reverse the damage done by laws and policies that fell disproportionately on minority youths.

Comprehension Questions
  • Why were some experts in the 1990s predicting a dramatic rise in violent crime among juvenile offenders?
  • How did politicians respond to the panic created over superpredators?
  • What kinds of changes were made to the criminal justice system in response to fears of superpredators?
  • What are some of the factors that may have contributed to the decline in juvenile crime that began in the late 1990s?
Discussion Questions and Writing Prompts
  • When young offenders were labeled as superpredators, how did that phrasing affect public perception? Do you think the label was appropriate?
  • How was the fear of superpredators intertwined with race relations and changing demographics? Do you think fear of superpredators was related to racial fears?
  • The experts who predicted a dramatic rise in violent juvenile crime were incorrect in their predictions. Why were their predictions so wrong? What does their failure teach us about the nature of predictions in the social sciences? Why is it harder for social scientists to make predictions than physicists, chemists, or astronomers?
  • One politician in the video (House Speaker Newt Gingrich) argues that anyone who commits an “adult” crime like murder should be prosecuted as an adult, regardless of their age. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • The video includes footage of leading politicians in both parties using the term superpredator and encouraging a “tougher” stance on youthful offenders. How does this relate to ideological trends in American politics during the 1990s? In what sense was the fear of superpredators a manifestation of broader trends in politics and demographics during the 1990s?
Additional Resources
Transcript Retro Report
Standards (Common Core State Standards)

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Standards (National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework)

Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Standards (AP U.S. History)

Skill 2.C: Explain the significance of a source’s point of view and how that might limit the use of a source.

Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE).