February 7, 2001

February 7, 2001 | Commentary on Crime

ED020701b:  The Real John Dilulio

In a Washington Post editorial-page hatchet-job that seems likely to take a place at the heart of the far-Left's gospel, Vincent Schiraldi takes aim at newly appointed Bush-administration civil-society czar John DiIulio ("Will the Real John DiIulio Please Stand Up?"). He misses. Schiraldi, head of the far-left Justice Policy Institute, derides DiIulio - a University of Pennsylvania professor who now heads the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Groups - as a right-wing goon who engages in dishonest crime analysis and favors punitive imprisonment policies. Schiraldi's attacks are false in both substance and spirit: DiIulio is a solid scholar and compassionate human being who ironically represents the Left's best shot at influencing Bush-administration policy.

DiIulio has an impressive academic record. On topics ranging from the value of faith-based organizations to the efficacy of home-security measures in high-crime areas, DiIulio's writings draw little controversy. It's only when it comes to his most media-friendly super-predators theory that DiIulio has made a few minor mistakes. In the early 1990s, DiIulio attracted uncritical attention from the left and the right for his talk of the growth of a "super-predator" caste of feral young males born of the absence of civil society, families, and churches in many parts of America.

In the 1996 book Body Count that he co-wrote with William Bennett and John Walters, DiIulio suggests that a late 1990s juvenile-crime explosion will be driven by a rising tide of these deeply troubled young men. So far, this hasn't happened: Crime fell through the late 1990s even as populations of males 15-24 - the prime ages for committing crime - grew. But we aren't out of the woods yet: Crime reduction stalled in 2000 (crime actually rose in the South) and youth populations will rise for at least five more years. DiIulio may have overstated the numbers a bit, but one need look no further than Columbine to realize that the decline of civil society has created hordes of very bad kids. Even where crime has gone down sharply, police believe they have trouble right around the corner.

When it comes to DiIulio's record on incarceration, Schiraldi proves just as disingenuous: Of all the leading thinkers associated with mainstream conservatives, DiIulio has been the most skeptical of prisons. In the early 1990s, he joined just about every politician, including Bill Clinton, in calling for longer sentences for violent criminals. Fear of crime was at an all-time high and a study by University of Arizona professor Michael Block had shown that violent criminals spent an average of a little over three months behind bars per reported crime. In nearly all of his writings, however, DiIulio's distress at rising imprisonment is palpable. Even when he speaks in favor of more imprisonment he never presents it as a panacea.

Writing in Policy Review in 1995, for example, DiIulio calls for more prisons but also for efforts to make inner-city neighborhoods safer and for extra spending on law enforcement. More recently, he's come to share the distress that many on the right have about the cost of long minimum sentences, and he's called for "zero prison growth." Indeed, he's even been skeptical of faith-based programs he's now charged with promoting. Late last year he told the Associated Press that existing faith-based programs working with troubled youth wouldn't always improve on their secular counterparts.

All of which makes it somewhat puzzling that leftists like Schiraldi aren't cheering DiIulio's appointment. While conservatives tend to claim him as one of their own, his last Washington job was at the center-left Brookings Institution. Indeed, his stands on many issues place him well to the left of the average New Democrat: He opposed welfare reform in 1994 and 1995, agrees that we should stop building prisons, and has deep and abiding faith in the ability of social programs to uplift the poor. Many of his closest allies, indeed, sit firmly to the left of center. Rev. Eugene Rivers, a pastor in inner-city Boston who has become a poster child for the power of faith-based organizations to remake troubled areas, sits well to the port side of the American mainstream. Rivers attacks corporate America and Ronald Reagan's social policies while citing Herbert Marcuse and Noam Chomsky as his leading intellectual influences. Rivers and his ilk will have a direct line to the White House in a Bush administration.

The left's opposition to DiIulio, in other words, seems born of fear rather than actual disagreement with his ideas. Working with faith-based organizations represents the Bush administration's best chance at making inroads with core Democratic constituencies and an effective, compassionate, intellectual like John DiIulio is the best person to do it. 

Eli Lehrer is visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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Originally published on National Review Online (02/07/01)