Programmers and funders are learning something that youth workers in many fields – private and public – have known for a long time: girls are different than boys in their adolescent development. Habit, traditions, attitude – whatever the cause – studies have shown differential treatment in schools, in recreational facilities, in the juvenile justice system, often in families. Racism and classism, as well as sexism, may also play into the difference in treatment. The messages girls get from the culture around them are also confusing and conflicting, and further complicate healthy development.
Female Offenders in the Juvenile Justice System, a report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) indicates that, nationally, females are entering the juvenile justice system at younger ages and, although male offenders account for most delinquent acts, juvenile arrests involving females were more than double the increase for males between 1989 and 1993.
A companion report, released by OJJDP and Girls, Inc., entitled Prevention and Parity: Girls in the Juvenile Justice System, states that in 1994 girls represented 25% of all juvenile arrests. The majority of girls were charged with nonviolent crimes, especially status offenses (i.e., acts that would not be considered crimes if committed by adults: such as running away, truancy, curfew violations). Girls account for between 25 – 35% of juveniles arrested for such delinquent offenses as larceny and theft, liquor law violations, and simple assault, and 49% of the juveniles charged with prostitution and commercialized vice.
According to FBI statistics, while in 1994 young women accounted for 18.6% of juveniles arrested for aggravated assault, they accounted for under 9% of juvenile arrests for serious offenses such as robbery and weapons offense, and about 6% for murder and non-negligent homicide.
The national statistics on differential treatment are startling. Although primarily referred for status offenses, females are twice as likely as boys to be detained, and are detained on average, three to five times as long. Until very recently, both day treatment and out-of-home placement programs were primarily designed for boys with few slots for girls – except in state training schools. Girls constituted at least half of the training school population prior to the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and its “deinstitutionalization of status offenders”. Although the percentage has decreased significantly, a change in that law allows judges to change the charge to a delinquency and commit a youngster for violation of a court order. (According to some youth workers, this “bootstrapping” often sets a youngster up for failure by giving an order that cannot be obeyed.) The Girls, Inc. report states that the percentage of girls in custody for violating a valid court order is double that of boys.
Where, for the most part, boys get in trouble for acting out their anger or machismo in violent or destructive ways, girls often get into the system for self-destructive behavior: “hanging with the wrong crowd,” promiscuity and pregnancy, truancy, substance abuse or family problems. Estimates of young women in the juvenile justice system who have been physically or sexually abused range from about 40-73%, compared to estimates in the national population that 23-34% of young women have been abused. Sexual abuse is often the reason girls run away from home, engage in early sexual activity, and use drugs and alcohol.
In some parts of the country there seem to be more and more violent female gang members. They carry weapons to school, get into fights, and sometimes engage in criminal behavior. Those who work with gangs report that the girls join for power, protection, and respect, and they are often subjected to sexual abuse and humiliation by the male members of the gang.
There have been, historically, few options for placements for girls. Most state institutions have not been geared to programming for the special needs of girls (such as sexual abuse treatment, appropriate vocational education, or programs for pregnant or parenting teens).
- Focus on prevention and early intervention
- Expand research on young women
- Stop differential treatment of female juvenile offenders
- Promote gender-specific, instead of gender-stereotyped, interventions
- Tailor treatment to fit individual needs
- Create more alternatives to abusive home situations
- Prepare girls for a positive future
OJJDP Administrator, stated at a conference earlier in the year in Washington, D.C. “There’s no doubt that girls deserve our special attention. In society as a whole we need to be reshaping how we respond to the female adolescent.” Sadly, some believe, as does Isabel Carter Stewart, Executive Director of Girls, Inc., that the juvenile justice system is, for many girls, their last best hope for rehabilitation. “We must make it responsive to their needs.”
This past October, Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee sponsored a conference on Girls in the Juvenile Justice System – A Search for Solutions. The tremendous turnout indicated an interest in, and need for, the concept of special programming for girls. This concern is not in any way intended to diminish services for boys in or out of the Juvenile Justice System or for serious offenders. According to Meda Chesney-Lind, keynoter at the October conference, however, only 2.3% of all community programs are exclusively for girls. Several of the workshops at the conference showcased successful state and community programs. Minnesota has, for several years, been developing programs that respond to the particular needs of girls. Among them, for example, is the St. Croix Girls’ Camp, a 3-month wilderness-based program with an education component and well-planned transition and aftercare services that involve working with the girls’ families (when they are willing and available). The camp started with a “corrections mentality” (“keep them controlled”), but changed to a treatment mode when the girls’ issues surfaced. Particularly troublesome are wards of the state who have no one to connect with. Staff found that for them independent living skills and mentors were particularly important. Minnesota has an Interagency Adolescent Female Task Force to address parity issues and gender-specific programming. Connecticut has begun to pay attention to these needs, including special programming for girls who have been referred to the Juvenile Court. (More about this at a later date.)
There is interest in the present Congress in dismantling the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, in focusing on punishment, violent juvenile offenders (mostly boys), secure detention for status offenses (or reunification with family), rolling back attention to minority and gender issues, and relaxing the requirement for separation of youngsters and adults in custody.
Connecticut’s Judge John T. Downey, Chief Administrative Judge, Juvenile Matters, said at the October conference: “If punishment really worked, we would have the best kids in the world. Concern for public safety and for accountability must be paired with treatment and education. Kids have needs that must be met if they are to return to society.” Glenda Armstrong, Director of the DOORS Programs, Danbury’s Juvenile Justice Center, described the challenge well: “Helping these girls is the key to strengthening the family structure. Appropriate services for girls will affect future generations.”