In the heat of the controversy over the creation of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Groups, John DiIulio, the office's director, has been lauded as a man of intellect and science. But for those of us who have followed the politics of crime and punishment for the past decade, no single person has been more closely identified with unsound crime analysis and punitive imprisonment policies than John DiIulio.
The 1990s were a punishing decade for America, with nearly as many people added to our prisons and jails as in America's entire history prior to 1990. These policies were particularly devastating to the black community as one in three young African American males was put under criminal justice control and states shifted funds from higher education to prisons. Fittingly, the number of adults and juveniles locked up in America topped the 2 million mark at the decade's end. While many politicians competed for top honors in the tough-on-crime sweepstakes, academia's acknowledged king of crime hype was John DiIulio. In 1996 he authored an incendiary report warning of a "rising tide of juvenile superpredators" waiting to engulf America. Bob Dole picked up on the "superpredator" epithet in a radio address during his presidential campaign. Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) dubbed legislation that jailed juveniles alongside adults "The Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996."
Turns out the tide never rose as high as DiIulio expected. The number of homicides committed by youth in America dropped by 68 percent between 1993 and 1999, and youth crime is now at its lowest in 25 years. As University of California Prof. Franklin Zimring pointed out, there would have had to be as many "thugs" under age 6 as over age 13 for the dire warnings of 270,000 new "superpredators" to come true.
In 1996, when America's crime policies became the harshest in the world, DiIulio authored the "State of Violent Crime in America," a report that selectively picked data to exaggerate the threat of violent crime and the leniency of America's justice policies. DiIulio's report claimed that "Over half of convicted violent felons are not even sentenced to prison." As it turned out, the government report DiIulio cited showed that 60 percent of all violent offenders were sentenced to prison and that another 21 percent were sentenced to jail. Overall, four out of five persons convicted of violent offenses were sentenced to incarceration, a statistic that did not fit the "soft on crime" tapestry he was attempting to weave.
In a 1996 Legal Times article, "A Bull in Crime's China Shop," DiIulio came under fire for his hyperbolic proclamations from a usually staid group of academics. University of Chicago criminologist Norval Morris said, "It's a tribute to the superficiality of our analysis of crime that he gets such notoriety." Zimring said, "Much of what he writes is trying to out-sound-bite Phil Gramm." Even DiIulio's mentor, conservative criminologist James Q. Wilson, said, "I understand the criticism, and I think there is some merit to it."
After the backlash against his gloom-and-doom proclamations, DiIulio wrote several pieces toning down his rhetoric. He began working with churches in inner-city communities, claimed that he never intended for young people to be incarcerated with adults and urged a stop to prison growth. These were startling turnarounds from a man who provided the intellectual backing for the largest prison expansion in our history, most of it at the expense of the inner-city blacks he was coming to embrace.
All of which leaves me cautious. Is DiIulio the man who called our young people "fatherless, godless and without conscience" and who wrote in the National Review, "All that's left of the black community in some pockets of urban America is deviant, delinquent and criminal adults surrounded by severely abused and neglected children, virtually all of whom were born out of wedlock?" Or is he the John DiIulio who has expressed hope for inner-city blacks, a hope that presumably does not include even larger numbers of them being funneled into the prisons he once so loudly espoused? Before a major federal initiative is put under his aegis, those are important questions to answer.
The writer is president of the Justice Policy Institute.