NAGEL DESCRIBES John DiIulio's rise in academe as "meteoric." Shortly after the publication of his first book, Governing Prisons, he was awarded tenure at Princeton. No one had ever been granted a permanent position on the school's political-science faculty so soon after earning a doctorate. At the time, DiIulio was on a leave of absence, having been appointed a Guest Scholar at The Brookings Institution for the 1988-89 academic year. That appointment enabled him to work on his second book, No Escape: The Future of American Corrections, published in 1991, the year he was promoted from associate to full professor.
It was about this time, DiIulio says, that "I decided I didn't want to spend my life doing research inside lock-ups." As an unpaid adviser to the management of Rikers Island, the multi-security-level jail complex in New York, he came in contact with young men in whom he could detect "hardly a flicker of human emotion." He says "they seemed eerily disconnected from any reality beyond themselves." Corrections officials, veteran police officers, and prosecutors in district attorneys' offices told him there was something different about these young criminals. DiIulio concluded it was "the lack of any empathic impulse and a radically-shortened time horizon."
Having returned to Princeton in 1989 as founding director of the Center of Domestic and Comparative Policy Studies, he co-authored a book entitled Improving Government Performance (1993) and collaborated with Wilson on the sixth edition of a classic text, American Government: Institutions and Policies (1995). Skilled at summarizing basic research and presenting it with clarity, he edited other books, contributed chapters, wrote dozens of articles in policy journals, issued reports, gave invited papers and lectures, provided testimony before House and Senate committees, and served on task forces, commissions, editorial boards, and advisory councils.
But what was increasingly on his mind were the "war stories" he kept hearing about the growing numbers of hardened, remorseless juveniles that were showing up in the prison system. One life-inmate told him: "I was a bad-ass street gladiator, but these kids are stone-cold predators." The phrase was translated as "super-predators" in Body Count, a book DiIulio published last year with William Bennett, the author and former drug czar, and John P. Walters, an expert on drugs and crime.
DiIulio now regrets using the term, which led some critics to suggest that the authors were encouraging readers to disavow kinship with the worst juvenile offenders. He believes in the possibility of rehabilitation, but he also is convinced, on the basis both of a cost-benefits analysis and, more important, his understanding of the social contract, that the most useful approach to violent crime is rooting out its causes. Having predicted that during the first 10 or 15 years of the 21st century, we will see successive waves of violent crime, committed by drug-dealing teenagers who fear neither arrest nor imprisonment, DiIulio feels an obligation to try to prevent this bleak scenario from coming to pass.
He believes that criminals are bred in morally impoverished environments. He defines "moral poverty" as "the poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong." He says that when he has "come up close and personal to a super-predator," he has always found "a kid who has suffered unrelenting abuse and neglect." These young and violent offenders have never known what made him and his street-corner buddies "feel rich -- unconditional love, or something close to it," from adults -- who never hesitated to discipline them, he adds.
But his conviction is not just visceral. DiIulio cites a longitudinal study of 1,000 children and teens, almost all from low-income, single-parent families, who participated in Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America (BB/BS). It showed that youngsters matched with mentors, who met with them three times a month for four hours each time, were 46 percent less likely than a comparison group to initiate drug use, 27 percent less likely to start drinking, one third less likely to commit assault, and half as likely to be truant from school. "The evidence is compelling that the difference between at-risk youth who make it and those who don't is often but a single nurturing, capable adult who is there for the child on at least a predictable part-time basis," DiIulio notes. Continued...
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