Let's finger some false prophets who often escape public ridicule because enough time has elapsed since they made their foolish predictions.

Here's that salesman of the virtues, Bill Bennett, who once co-chaired the Council on Crime in America, and issued a 1996 report titled "The State of Violent Crime in America," containing these ominous words and (entirely inaccurate) predictions: "America is a ticking violent crime bomb. Rates of violent juvenile crime and weapons offenses have been increasing dramatically, and by the year 2000, could spiral out of control."

These were the years when headline-seeking criminologists like John DiIulio of Princeton and Northeastern's James Alan Fox painted lurid scenarios of "superpredators," meaning urban youth of color, swelling Generation Y by as much as 24 percent.

In fact, violent juvenile crime rates have plunged during the 1990s, utterly confounding Bennett, DiIulio and the others. The false prophets continue to receive handsome salaries, lecture fees and the respectful attention of book reviewers. The damage wrought by their predictions lives on in the form of a continuing hysteria about youth crime and the criminalizing of minority youth, of youth from certain neighborhoods, and of certain ethnic origins.

"The law has taken many terrible turns in the last few years, and the pit of the law is the juvenile justice system." This is Catherine Campbell, a civil rights attorney in Fresno, Calif. "It stinks. It's rotten to the core. It should be wiped away and started over. A lot of it begins with putting the kids of poor parents into foster care. That's how authorities inspire hatred, anger, frustration and feelings of worthlessness. It's the 'I don't give a f--- zone', and with only a few months of that, most kids are pretty much destroyed. They are 'criminalized' when their behavior crosses over the almost unavoidable line of criminal behavior."

Our society has made criminal behavior that wasn't criminal ten years ago. Statutory rape is the latest craze -- it's no longer "teenagers in love." Now when a 16-year-old has sex with a 15-year-old it's statutory rape. All kids commit crimes. Most adults commit crimes. We smoke joints, we have stolen if we don't steal now, we walked the streets in groups (now called gangs, just being in one is illegal), we lie on our tax returns. The point is not just that youth is criminalized, but that certain kids are especially criminalized, kids from bad neighborhoods.

Campbell again: "The laws have changed, and they are so awful. Take civil commitment. Used to be the wisdom was you can't predict criminal behavior. Now the wisdom is that a criminal is everyone who has committed a crime. He's a criminal now, and will be forever. Nowhere is this theory more controlling than as to sex crimes. I had a client who at age 15 had sex with a 7-year old. Both boys. ... He was charged and convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior. He went to California Youth Authority. There, he was diagnosed by diabolical shrinks as a sexual psychopath, and they kept him in two years longer than his sentence based on new civil commitment laws that allow that to happen. He finally got out when some shrink said the kid's gay, let him go. They extended this kid's term every time he had sex (he lived with other gay boys) or masturbated!"

They get them, and then if they're poor, of color, angry or unsuccessful in school, they keep them. Through all means available, they keep them in the criminal system. They search them, harass them, follow them, watch who they talk with, what they wear. The most minor infraction -- and they are back in jail.

There are no middle-class gangs, there are only lower-class gangs. And it's a crime to be in a gang, and it's more time in jail or prison if a crime is gang-related. You can't really survive on the streets in those bad neighborhoods without being in a gang (if you're male), so you're criminal just because you're alive and leave the house. Walk out the door, commit a crime. And of course the age at which you are an adult for jail and prison eligibility is lower every year.

The drug laws are of course key to criminalizing youth. The trick is to take something almost everybody does, and then make it a crime. That way you can pick and choose who you want to mess with. Kids from all backgrounds use drugs, but again, only kids from bad neighborhoods get criminalized for it.

In California, A black teenager is six times more likely to be incarcerated for a first-time violent offense than a white kid. A black teenager is 48 times (yes, you read that right, 48) more likely to do time for a drug offense than a white kid. In fact, young people of color display the largest declines and lowest rates of drug abuse of any group."

Maybe those false prophets, Bennett, DiIulio and the others, could kick off the new year by drawing attention to such facts.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.