Ethics & Public Policy Center

Kids Who Kill

Published in Books & Culture on January 1, 1997


John DiIulio is worried about a new breed of violent young criminal–and he wants you to be worried, too. The answer? Look to the inner-city churches, and get involved.

Though he hasn’t yet turned 40, John J. DiIulio, Jr., is one of the nation’s leading experts in the field of criminal justice. Professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Public Management, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, DiIulio carries an impressive list of academic credentials, including a number of scholarly publications. He is also a widely quoted public intellectual whose essays appear regularly in the Weekly Standard, The New Republic, National Review, and other leading journals of opinion.

DiIulio was one of the first to sound the warning about the now widely acknowledged increase in juvenile crime. In particular, he has drawn attention to the young criminals–mostly male–whom he calls “super-predators,” characterized by violent impulsiveness and a chilling lack of empathy or remorse. Because he writes and speaks about crime without employing fashionable evasions, DiIulio has been harshly criticized by some of his scholarly peers, but he does not belong in anybody’s political pigeonhole. As James Traub observed in a New Yorker profile (Nov. 4, 1996),

Besides being a tenured Ivy League professor, he is a Democrat who has sharply, and publicly, attacked the Contract with America and the new welfare law. He may be the only academic in the country who could say, as he did in a speech earlier this year, “It is no more true that most welfare recipients are lazy, undeserving people than it is true that most prisoners are mere first-time nonviolent criminals.”

Lately DiIulio has been working with a coalition of black ministers who believe that churches, given adequate funds, are the best hope–maybe the only hope–for neglected and abused kids in the inner city. Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center met with DiIulio in Philadelphia to talk about that ongoing work and about DiIulio’s new book, Body Count, coauthored with William Bennett and John P. Walters.

You have said America is sitting on a ticking demographic crime bomb. Can you explain that to us?

In 1994 there were 2.7 million arrests of persons under age 18, up from 1.7 million in 1991; 150,000 of those arrests of juveniles were for violent crimes. Juveniles are now responsible for ever-larger shares of both property and violent crime. If you look at the estimates by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, they will tell you that by the year 2010 we’ll have about 4,500,000 more boys, males under the age of 18, in the population than we had in 1990. Even if the increase isn’t that big, even if fertility rates nationally trend downward as some people suggest they well might, almost everyone believes that there is going to be an increase in the number of at-risk juvenile males: kids who are basically unsupervised, not in homes where they are given the most rudimentary education.

A good proxy for what’s going to happen down the road is rates of child abuse and neglect. We know that, all other things being equal, child maltreatment will increase the chances of delinquency by about 40 percent. That sheer demographic effect is going to have an impact. Lots of other things could happen to mitigate the situation: law enforcement changes, social-policy changes–all sorts of other things can make a difference; it’s a multi-variant world. But ultimately, I think, the news is not very good.

Is this what you mean when you write about the coming of the “super-predators”?

Among the increasing population of children who are growing up without adequate supervision and care, there is a small fraction of kids who are simply surrounded by deviant, delinquent criminal adults, in fatherless, godless, and jobless settings. That kind of criminogenic environment is the breeding ground for the kids who have been referred to as the super-predators. They are remorseless, radically present-oriented, and radically self-regarding; they lack empathic impulses; they kill or maim or get involved in other forms of serious crime without much consideration of future penalties or risks to themselves or others. The stigma of arrest means nothing to them.

The important thing about the super-predators concept is that it’s at one end of the juvenile crime continuum. At the other end is the old concept of delinquent youth, stealing hubcaps or going for a joyride. Most of the kids who are committing crimes are not at either of these ends. But if only one-tenth of 1 percent of the kids who are out there committing crimes are at the super-predator extreme, that’s very bad news, because those kids exercise an influence that is completely out of proportion to their numbers. The most radically impulsive and violent kids tend to be the ones who are leading the more than 200,000 kids who are organized into gangs in this country today.

The super-predators are the kids who will commit and instigate the most serious crimes, but they are also among the most needy kids. Every super-predator I’ve come up close and personal to is a kid who has suffered unrelenting abuse and neglect. They are desperately in need of spiritual and material help.

Are you encouraged at all, as a counter to this pessimistic forecast, by the recent drop of crime in New York?

I am encouraged by it. I’m encouraged by the fact that New York has had such success. I attribute that largely, but not solely, to the improvements that have been made in policing in New York City. If you look at the data that have been reported (they are essentially the fbi’s uniform crime reports), fully a third of the decrease in reported crimes in America over the past several years is concentrated in New York. So if you throw New York out of the mix, we haven’t had a national decrease in crime. It’s been stable, and some categories have been increasing. New York is the national story as well as the northeastern U.S. story.

I’m not quite as thrilled as a lot of people for at least two reasons, however. One is that reported crimes are not all crimes. We measure all crimes through the National Crime Victimization Survey. To make a long story short, the National Crime Victimization Survey showed that in 1995 there had been a drop in violent crimes nationally, from 10.9 to 9.9 million criminal victimizations, which is real and true and good news. The bad news, however, comes in two parts. Number one, the way in which crimes are counted and measured is different from the way it was done only a few years ago. So, for example, until May of 1995, the same survey instrument had never counted as many as 7 million violent crimes in a single year. So as far as anyone knew, as of May 1995, Americans had never suffered as many as 7 million violent crimes in a single year. Now we’re cheering the fact that we’ve decreased under this new way of measuring victimizations from 10.9 to 9.9 million. We ought to cheer, because I think crime is nationally in that direction, but again, that’s more crimes than we knew we had before.

Second, if you compare crime rates today with those in the 1950s or ’60s, you’ll find that we are living with rates of violent criminal victimization that are four and five times what they were as little as three or four decades ago. I want to cheer the decrease in New York, but we ought not define criminality down, we ought not be happy that New York City may only have a thousand or so murders this year, when in the 1940s with a population as large and with paramedics who weren’t as fast, we had 44 gunshot murders in a typical year.

Let me bring this around to a new book you’ve written with Bill Bennett and John Walters (Body Count: Moral Poverty . . . and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs), wherein you all suggest that the principal reason for the increase in violent crime is “moral poverty.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Let me take the first word, briefly, because it’s often a source of confusion. When we talk about moral poverty, we’re thinking about morality as something that doesn’t inhere in the individual, but that is learned. So by moral poverty we mean growing up in the absence of parents, coaches, teachers, clergy, and other adults who teach you right from wrong, who nurture you, who show you unconditional love, or something that is close to it, and give you loving discipline as well. More and more kids in this country, not just poor kids or inner-city kids, but kids across the board, are growing up with some degree of moral poverty.

So you don’t have to be in an urban neighborhood to grow up in moral poverty?

Absolutely not. In fact, over half of kids in this country, by some estimates, will reach the age of 18 without having experienced consistent adult supervision and guidance. You can be at Princeton University and have grown up in moral poverty and have problems as a result of it. You could be on the streets of Camden. It knows no race, creed, color, or zip code.

You suggest in Body Count that the religious dimension of moral poverty is the most important of all. Why do you say that?

For two reasons. First, we’re concerned not just about crime and not just about criminals, but about the spiritual condition of the people who are doing the crime. If you told us that there is a gun-control program or strategy that could take every high-tech gun off the streets of North Philadelphia, we would run, not walk, to get that program implemented. We would also, at the end of the day, remain very concerned about the spiritual condition of kids who would use high-tech guns if they could get them. When everything is said and done, we believe that, as Christians, we should feel convicted by the fact that we are dealing with this problem of moral poverty and so-called super-predators. Our response can’t be simply to lock these kids up, even though that’s something we must do in far too many cases. We’re concerned about the child behind the crime.

Second, we talk about religion because, as much effective monitoring as you can do through juvenile justice, as much effective mentoring as you can do through programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, there are many, many kids in the most abject moral poverty who will not be reached by these programs. And here the church needs to step in. These are the kids who are the biggest street-level crime problem. They are the most abused, neglected, and underserved. In the inner-city communities where this problem is most acute, the churches have a moral obligation–and many of them are already doing this–to open their doors to these kids.

How is the involvement of the church in these issues viewed by your colleagues in the social science community?

I’m laughing a bit because over the past ten years, first I thought there was nothing less popular in academic and intellectual circles than a pro-family intellectual. Then I concluded, no, it was a pro-incarceration intellectual, but now I nominate pro-religion intellectuals. Not because of out-and-out disregard or dislike of religious institutions, so much as the knee-jerk suspicion among a lot of elite academics, in particular, that if you believe in God you have some form of mental illness, and you need to be treated rather than encouraged.

We believe that, purely as a good social scientist, you need to look at the efficacy of religious commitment, attachment to religious institutions, and so on, as a factor in explaining variants in juvenile crime rates. You simply cannot explain variants in juvenile crime rates without some reference to the religion variable, or the so-called faith factor. It just keeps coming up. As hard as some people have tried to bury it, suppress it, sweep it under the rug, there is more and more research evidence, and there will be more and more scientific research evidence, to suggest that kids who have some attachment to religious institutions do better in terms of staying off drugs, staying out of crime, than other kids who are the same in all other ways we can know, but lack that attachment. We think the spiritual dimension here is real and important. The at-risk kids, like all kids, need adults in their lives who are there because they see in the child not just another statistic or body but a spiritual being who needs to be saved, saved from the horrors of the streets and saved spiritually.

We also think there is a very practical dimension. There may be a church in your neighborhood, as there are in some of the most depressed areas of Philadelphia, for example, where kids can go and get literacy training, and get drug treatment that addresses the whole person–not just credentialed therapy, but a whole-person treatment: what’s going on in the home, what’s going on in school, what’s troubling you, what’s driving this, why did you do it, how can we help you; we’re here for you, we love you even when the world hates you. That kind of care makes a positive difference. So our position is, if you want to view religion purely in a secular light, do so. If you want to talk about measuring the performance of competing ways of dealing with substance abuse, that’s fine, too. Just give the churches a chance to compete, and give the faith factor its due in explaining the variants in crime rates.

Now you do say something a bit controversial when you say that government officials should enable churches to do more. Is this possible, given the church-state issues?

I have to be clear that in answering this I am speaking for myself, not for my coauthors in Body Count. America has somewhere in the vicinity of 23,000 black churches, many of them in inner-city areas where the problems are worst, and they are doing all kinds of good things. I say, let the government fund programs that are targeted to serve kids who have these attributes, with the aim of reducing their frequency of drug use and their recidivism rates, and so on. Don’t specify process criteria–how many Ph.D.’s you need to have, and what the treatment modalities need to be–just specify the performance criteria and let the churches compete for those funds, like anyone else. Don’t regulate them to death. Don’t make it impossible for them to get local zoning waivers. Don’t bar them from competition for federal dollars.

I’m hoping to be a part of building a systematic inventory of evaluative research on the churches, and I believe that the black churches are already outperforming many of the secular alternatives in terms of primary and secondary prevention programs. Beyond that, I would simply point out that in many places, a fairly substantial fraction of the social-services dollar is going to religious institutions today. Catholic Charities, for example, gets about 62 percent of its funds through various government entities. Now, as a good Catholic, I will maintain for the sake of the organization that there is no proselytizing going on. It’s like Jiffy Lube, only it happens to have a religious orientation. But if we really believe that, I don’t think we understand the nature of the Catholic church’s mission here on earth, or what Christians are about. I want to do it up front, not through the back door; I want people to know that when we do literacy training, that literacy training is going to occur using the Bible, as it has occurred for generations and generations, and very effectively. I want people to be aware of that up front. I want people not to be afraid of it or scared by it. My own take on the constitutional questions differs radically from what I consider to be the myth of the separation of church and state, but I’ll fall silent on that.

That’s why your guiding principle is, “Build churches, not jails.”

That’s right. We will probably build scores more maximum-, medium-, and especially minimum-security prisons, including ones for juveniles, over the next 15 years. This will happen regardless of whether the demographic crime bomb goes off or not. The laws have been passed, the kids are in the pipeline, the crimes are being committed. So the prisons are going to be built. But I truly believe, not simply as a matter of religious faith, but as a matter of empirical observation, that if we could build 10 or 15 churches with youth-outreach ministries like we have at the Deliverance Evangelist Church in Philadelphia, we could make a real difference.

When you say “if we could build churches,” who is the “we”?

I’m part of an effort that is forming a nonprofit organization to raise private funds to identify the churches in major metropolitan areas in America that are actually doing this now–not talking about it, but doing it-who need help in getting the dollars and the personnel and the logistical support. So when I say “build churches,” in some cases I mean literally the bricks and mortar of building a facility, which in some cases is the only decent physical dwelling in the entire neighborhood, with open doors and with staffing and with space and activities going on for the kids of the community.

They need help in money. We could fit in every at-risk kid in Philadelphia who doesn’t have parental or home support. We could do it in this city. We don’t have to have a major juvenile crime problem in the city of Philadelphia, we don’t have to have kids who are growing up without any decent adult care. If we empower the churches, we can change that.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the coalition you put together on this?

I’ve been working over the past ten months or so with a group of inner-city ministers here in Philadelphia and in Boston. The Boston coalition is headed by Reverend Eugene Rivers, a self-described Christian black nationalist, who has been at it for the better part of a decade in the Four Corners neighborhood of Boston. In Boston, they’ve been working around a ten-point plan which basically runs the gamut from being ombudsman for juvenile probationers to one-on-one drug treatment, to literacy training, to Boston Freedom Summer, where they give kids the opportunity to be together in a structured, disciplined, but loving environment. Walking among the poor: that’s what they’re doing. It’s really as simple as that.

The difficulty that I’ve discovered is, as Reverend Rivers likes to say, there are lots and lots of churches with lots and lots of resources, both public and private resources, that haven’t lived their faith commitment on the streets. They haven’t gotten the money to where it is needed and haven’t gotten the help to where it is needed. That’s not an indictment of all the churches, it’s merely to say there’s an awful lot that needs to be done here, and it’s going to take some kind of radical action to get it done.

So you are trying to build a network in something like 35 cities?

We have a goal. We talk about job one being to refine the ten-point plan; job two, shoring up the Boston operation and making it truly citywide; job three, taking that and replicating it here in Philadelphia, a much bigger, tougher, more crime-ridden city; and all the while beginning to develop a network of people all across the country in our 20 biggest cities, with the goal of a thousand churches by the year 2006 that are doing some or all of the key ten points of this holistic youth-outreach ministry. It’s a coalition not only among the various black Protestant inner-city churches, but also involving the Catholic church. It is an alliance that transcends a lot of the usual theological, ideological, and denominational divides. I’ve met and talked to everyone from Ralph Reed to Ron Sider. Again, the problem defines the solution here. I think we’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support from lots of people. So far, mostly rhetorical support, but I hope soon financial support, and best of all, hands and feet in the neighborhoods and the communities, which is really ultimately what we need

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