Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Bradley Foundation and ‘Superpredators’

Research it helped fund demonized young Black males, leading to long prison sentences.

By - Apr 27th, 2022 03:32 pm
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation moved to the Hammes Headquarters building in 2019. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation moved to the Hammes Headquarters building in 2019. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is the nation’s foremost funder of conservative think tanks and research. Often that has involved funding particular researchers who espouse views the foundation favors. One who came to the foundation’s attention was a young academic named John J. Dilulio, Jr., who would go on to electrify the nation with his theory of the “superpredator.”

As a young scholar Dilulio got a John M. Olin Faculty Fellowship from the conservative Olin Foundation. He was a protege of James Q. Wilson, the professor who co-authored the “Broken Windows” theory and had received Bradley Funding.

Between January 1988 and August 1996, Dilulio received seven grants totaling $277,000 from the Olin and Bradley foundations. The pairing of funding by the two foundations was common, as the Bradley Foundation’s leader Michael Joyce (from 1985-2001) had previously run the Olin Foundation (1979-1985). About 60% of organizations funded by Olin were also funded by the Bradley Foundation, as I reported in a 1988 story for Milwaukee Magazine. Joyce spoke positively of Dilulio when I interviewed him.

Dilulio was an advocate of increased prison construction whose efforts are credited with influencing the 1994 crime bill, which provided millions of dollars for prison construction. He went on to write a November 1995 cover story in The Weekly Standard, a magazine of conservative political opinion that received funding from the Bradley Foundation. The cover carried the punchy headline, “The Coming of the Super-Predators.”

Dilulio based his theory “on a study of Philadelphia boys that calculated that 6 percent of them accounted for more than half the serious crimes committed by the whole cohort,” as a story by the Marshall Project reports. “He blamed these chronic offenders on ‘moral poverty’ … the poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong.”

“Dilulio warned that by the year 2000 an additional 30,000 young ‘murderers, rapists, and muggers’ would be roaming America’s streets, sowing mayhem. ‘They place zero value on the lives of their victims, whom they reflexively dehumanize as just so much worthless ‘white trash,’ he wrote.” He argued that many of the superpredators would be young Black males.

In fact, this theory was completely wrong. Even at the time the juvenile crime rate was declining. “By 2000, when tens of thousands more children were supposed to be out there mugging and killing, juvenile murder arrests had fallen by two-thirds,” the Marshall Project notes.

But the superpredator term and theory was picked by the media across the country and became a new and highly flawed way of understanding crime. “The Marshall Project’s review of 40 major news outlets in the five years after his Weekly Standard article shows the neologism popping up nearly 300 times, and that is an undercount.”

Dilulio won a New Yorker profile, a New York Times op-ed page and an appearance on the CBS Evening News. “The word ‘superpredator’ became so much a part of the national vocabulary that journalists and talk show hosts used it without reference to Dilulio—including even Oprah Winfrey, in a segment on ‘Good Morning America.’” First Lady Hillary Clinton used the term in a speech.

A January 1996, Newsweek story was headlined: “‘Superpredators’ Arrive: Should we cage the new breed of vicious kids?”

Dilulio’s theory “energized a movement, as one state after another enacted laws making it possible to try children as young as 13 or 14 as adults,” as Clyde Haberman wrote in a 2014 review of the era for the New York Times. “Many hundreds of juveniles were sent to prison for life.”

A recent New York Times op ed tells the story of Keith Belcher, a Black teenager in Connecticut who was sentenced to 60 years in prison for sexual assault and armed robbery committed when he was 14. This was in 1997, by which time Diulio’s theory had swept the nation.

Judge Michael Hartmere, who handed out this sentence, offered this explanation for sentencing the teenager to imprisonment until his mid-70s: “Professor Dilulio of Princeton University has coined the term ‘superpredator,’ which refers to a group of radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters who assault, rape, rob and burglarize. Mr. Belcher, you are a charter member of that group. You have no fears, from your conduct, of the pains of imprisonment, nor do you suffer from the pangs of conscience.”

Within a couple years of this decision, the media had begun to revisit the superpredator theory, with stories noting that the wave of juvenile violence Dilulio had predicted never came to pass. ”His prediction wasn’t just wrong, it was exactly the opposite,” said Franklin E. Zimring, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the university’s Earl Warren Legal Institute, in a 2001 Times story. ”His theories on superpredators were utter madness.’’

”I’m sorry for any unintended consequences,” Dilulio told the newspaper. ”But I am not responsible for teenagers’ going to prison.” He went on to sign on to a 2012 brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting a successful effort to limit life sentences without parole for juveniles.

By then Belcher had served 15 years of his 60 year prison sentence. He would eventually serve another 10 years in prison until the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the sentence imposed on him. Attorneys for Belcher appealed the sentence, because it was based on a theory the trial judge had explicitly cited which has been proven wrong, and retracted by its author. The sentence was based on “materially false information,” the attorneys charged.

Today the media has jumped on a different term, “mass incarceration,” to describe the explosion of prisons and long sentences since the 1980s. The prisoners are disproportionately Black and many were sentenced as teens. Few have been as lucky as Belcher, where the judge explicitly cited a theory, rather than simply reacting as many judges did to the generalized hype about a fictional crime wave when sentencing young Black males.

As for Dilulio, his admission of error has done little to tarnish his reputation: He was an advisor to the administration of President George W. Bush and remains a highly regarded and award-winning academic. The Bradley Foundation has never offered any disavowal of Dilulio’s research.

3 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Bradley Foundation and ‘Superpredators’”

  1. ringo muldano says:

    Typical of today’s conservative mindset: it’s not you it’s me, it’s all mine. Today’s republican electorate is merely a smidge more ignorant compared to the people they elect into office. The brain drain required to run as rCon for public office is not enough to disqualify the fascist, deluded xtians.

  2. Dan Wilson says:

    Should mention the rash of laws passed in Wisconsin such as determinate sentencing, three strikes, criminalizing juveniles and minimum sentences. It was also propelled by the David Spanbauer murders who became a poster boy for minimum prison sentences. All those laws are still on the books which is why we now have over 20,000 people imprisoned.

  3. mkwagner says:

    I don’t know. The concept of superpredator aptly describes the actions and personal traits of the uber rich like DeVos, Trump, Ron Jon, and other oligarchs who believe they are entitled to amass obscene fortunes by wringing every last dime out of working Americans.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us