Combating the Myth of the Superpredator

In the 1990s, a handful of researchers inspired panic with a dire but flawed prediction: the imminent arrival of a new breed of “superpredators.”

In 1995, John DiIulio, Jr., then a Princeton professor, coined a phrase that seemed to sum up the nation’s fear of teen violence: “superpredator.” In the previous decade, teenage crime rates had exploded. Television news led with story after story of seemingly incomprehensible violence committed by children as young as 10. Many criminologists feared the trend would continue, and DiIulio warned that hundreds of thousands of remorseless teen predators were just over the horizon.

The “superpredator” caught the attention of reporters and politicians, some of whom used it to push for the continued overhaul of a juvenile justice system they considered too lenient. By the end of the 1990s, nearly every state had passed laws to make it easier to try juveniles in adult courts or to increase penalties for violent juvenile crimes.

Today, states are reconsidering life prison sentences of people who were given mandatory life terms as juveniles – a practice that has since been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

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Related: When Youth Violence Spurred ‘Superpredator’ Fear by Clyde Haberman

Previous versions
At Retro Report, we update our journalism as news unfolds. Here are the previous published versions of this story.
For teachers
  • Producer: Bonnie Bertram
  • Producer: Scott Michels
  • Editor: David Feinberg

For Educators


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.

Background reading

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.

Lesson Plan 1: The Moral Panic Over “Superpredators”

Students will learn how politicians of both parties used flawed predictions about the rise of a new class of youthful offenders known as superpredators to justify a series of dramatic changes to the nation’s criminal justice system during the 1990s.

  • 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.
Essential 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?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7: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.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3: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.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 9.5: Migration and Immigration in the 1990s and 2000s

      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).