Research of Note for September 2005

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Old Myth: The Rise in Girls’ Violence

An Assessment of Recent Trends in Girls’ Violence Using Diverse Longitudinal Sources: Is the Gender Gap Closing?
Pennsylvania State University, et al. Abstract available at

Six years ago, Meda Chesney-Lind, professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, described the pervasive “girls-are-getting-worse” message touted by the media and some juvenile justice stakeholders as “a bandwagon notion.” (See “Are Girls Getting Worse, or Are Adults Getting Scared?” Youth Today, February 1999.)

“No matter how much the data refute the idea, it’s reborn every other decade,” said Chesney-Lind.

This new study, it is hoped, has bought an extra decade or two of peace.

Darrell Steffensmeier, professor of sociology and crime at Pennsylvania State University, and his colleagues compare three major sets of longitudinal data on girls’ violent behavior with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) to determine whether any corroborating statistical evidence exists for the claim that female juvenile arrests for violent crimes are rising, or that the gendergap in violent arrests for girls and boys is narrowing.

They found none.

“When you hear this over and over, but yet it doesn’t look like it’s really happening, you get to be a little skeptical of it,” says Steffensmeier, a member of the Girls’ Study Group research consortium on delinquency funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The researchers compared federal UCR data with three sources that collect data on violent incidents that include, but are not limited to, those reported to police: National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reports from victims of violent offenders, and self-reports of violent behavior by youth in Monitoring the Future (MTF) and the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (NYRBS).
Using an advanced time series technique, the researchers examined the four datasets for statistically reliable patterns in the violent crime rate trends of 12- to 18-year-olds from 1980 to 2003. The report says the test allowed the researchers to “estimate the presence or absence of a significant upward or downward trend in the gender gap in juvenile violence.”

While the UCR showed a convergence in the arrest rates for boys and girls, data from the other three studies indicated either stable conditions (where male and female rates moved up and down in equilibrium), trendless conditions (random movements without a clear upward or downward trend) or a widening in the gender gap.

The study’s authors say girls’ arrest rates have increased because of “stretching definitions of violence” to include more minor incidents that rarely led to arrests in the past, the emergence of “less tolerant family and societal attitudes toward juvenile females” and more use of preventative punishment and risk management by juvenile justice and other agencies.

Steffensmeier says that, while early identification may be the right way to get services to troubled girls, “it may have collateral consequences” that perpetuate the research, treatment and correctional industries’ need for statistics on rising girl crime rates.

New Myth: More Sexual Violence in Juvenile Corrections

Sexual Violence Reported by Correctional Authorities, 2004
U.S. Department of Justice
Available at

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 required the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to develop the first national data collection on sexual violence in adult and juvenile correctional facilities – both government-run and private – to help keep youth and adult offenders safer while they serve their time.

The agency’s inaugural report finds that the rates of both alleged and substantiated sexual violence by inmates and staff in juvenile corrections facilities are more than triple the rates in adult facilities and up to 10 times higher by some specific measures.
Those are disturbing findings on the surface, but they come with built-in caveats by authors Allen Beck and Timothy Hughes of BJS.

The U.S. Census Bureau collected the data between Jan. 1 and June 15, 2004 from all of the nation’s 510 public state juvenile facilities, including Washington, D.C. (Arkansas has no state facility). The bureau also surveyed about 10 percent (297) of the 685 local and 2,275 private juvenile facilities identified in its 2003 census.

The study measured inmate-to-inmate nonconsensual sexual acts and abusive sexual contact, and staff sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.

State juvenile systems, which housed 41,196 youth in mid-2004, reported 931 allegations of sexual violence of all types, 212 of which were substantiated. The highest rates of allegations per 1,000 inmates were for staff sexual misconduct (11.34) and nonconsensual sexual acts between inmates (6.75).

The local/private facilities in the survey, which housed 21,739 youth as of mid-2004, reported 359 allegations against inmates and staff, 108 of which were substantiated. Their highest rates of allegations per 1,000 inmates were for nonconsensual sexual acts (7.31) and abusive sexual contact between inmates. About one-third of local/private facilities reported having at least one allegation.

The rates of substantiated incidents of sexual violence of all types in both state and local/private juvenile facilities are nearly 10 times higher than those for adult state prisons and eight times higher than those for local adult jails. That made headlines nationwide last month.

In the first of several caveats, however, the authors explain that state-operated juvenile facilities, unlike adult facilities, are often legally required to report all sexual allegations to local law enforcement and child welfare officials. Additionally, age of consent laws in many states define any sexual contact between juveniles as nonconsensual, and therefore illegal.

The researchers also found that the large majority of local/private juvenile facilities were highly capable of using BJS’ own definitions and categories to fully report sexual violence data, while data from adult and state juvenile facilities matched more poorly, and so tended to be incomplete or muddled.

Finally, the results of the study are based solely on those incidents reported to, and recorded by, correctional officials. According to the authors, “administrative records alone cannot provide reliable estimates of sexual violence” in the face of underreporting by victims who distrust staff, fear reprisal or are embarrassed.

BJS intends future surveys to include victim reports of sexual violence that may or may not have been reported to officials, “to permit reliable comparisons” – a collection method strikingly similar to the one advocated in the adjacent study on this page about girls’ violence.

“There’s a whole different level of accountability and response for juveniles, which is different than for adults,” says Howard Beyer, executive director of the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission.