Defending Hillary Clinton for her use of the term "superpredator" during a 1996 speech.

James Alan Fox
3:02 a.m. EST February 29, 2016

The Democratic front-runner wasn't demonizing black youth in 1996, and black voters know it.

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 term "superpredators" in a 1996 speech. She blamed Clinton for demonizing black youth and for helping to push a racist policy 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 powerful 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. Although I never embraced the somewhat inaccurate term superpredator as youthful assailants are far more impulsive than predatory I did purposely use phrases such as "teenage blood bath" to bring attention to the rise in violence among blacks and whites alike.

Working closely back then with President Clinton and Hillary Clinton, White House policy adviser Rahm Emanuel and Attorney General Janet Reno, I was witness to the fast developing groundswell for harsh punishment.

Early on, Hillary Clinton and others in the administration advocated for prevention programs, many of which were disparaged under the umbrella of midnight basketball. The Clintons believed in and fully supported youth 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 amidst low crime rates, the nation has collectively come to its senses. Informed by scientific research on adolescent brain development and helped by several key Supreme Court decisions concerning juvenile justice, we are rethinking the unforgiving, draconian approach to youth crime.

Clinton apologized after criticism of her two-decade-old comment, no doubt a safeguard against any erosion in her black support. But she really had nothing for which to apologize, as most black voters appear to recognize.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He wrote a 1996 report to the U.S. Attorney General on rates of juvenile offending.