Clinton need not apologize for 1996 ‘superpreda­tors’

- James Alan Fox James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeaste­rn University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributo­rs.

Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams crashed a private campaign fundraiser in Charleston, S.C., last week, demanding that Hillary Clinton answer for using the word “superpreda­tors” in a 1996 speech. She blamed Clinton for demonizing black youth and helping to push a racist agenda of mass incarcerat­ion.

But nothing in Clinton’s remark was intended to produce either result. And her stellar performanc­e among black voters in the South Carolina primary a few days later suggests they are not penalizing her for something she said 20 years ago.

The term superpreda­tor was coined by political scientist John DiIulio to characteri­ze juvenile offenders who murdered and maimed without remorse. Clinton, then a first lady campaignin­g for her husband, said in Keene, N.H., that they had “no conscience, no empathy,” and that “we have to bring them to heel.”

During those days of high crime rates, when fear was widespread in both black and white communitie­s, the superpreda­tor sound bite went as viral as things could go in an era before social media. It was often uttered by politician­s from both parties, including 1996 Republican presidenti­al nominee Bob Dole.

I recall the 1990s panic over youth violence vividly, having been a central figure in the call to action. Though I never embraced the somewhat inaccurate term superpreda­tor — as youthful assailants are far more impulsive than predatory — I did use phrases like “teenage blood bath” to bring attention to the rise in vi- olence among blacks and whites. Working closely with President Clinton and Hillary Clinton, White House policy adviser Rahm Emanuel and Attorney General Janet Reno, I witnessed the fast-developing groundswel­l for harsh punishment.

Early on, Hillary Clinton and others in the administra­tion advocated for prevention programs. The Clintons believed in and supported enrichment initiative­s, and my advocacy for investing in youth “before it was too late” found a welcoming audience.

Unfortunat­ely, the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress spearheade­d by Newt Gingrich changed the policy response. Guided by the GOP “Contract with America,” prevention became a dirty word and was eclipsed by punishment.

Those like me and the first lady, who were calling for preschool education and after-school programs, were shouted down by the get-tough talkers who criticized the coddling of teens and demanded “adult time for adult crime.” The train to the prison yard had left the station.

Over the past few years amid low crime rates, the nation has come to its senses. Informed by research on adolescent brain developmen­t and helped by several key Supreme Court decisions, we are rethinking the unforgivin­g approach to youth crime.

Clinton apologized after criticism of her two-decade-old comment. But she really had nothing for which to apologize, as most black voters appear to recognize.

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