Girls and Crime

Leslie Acoca Journal of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention October 1999, Vol. VI, No. 1 Free from Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse (800) 638-8736.

Even though crime statistics have gone down across America in the last few years, the statistics have been going in the opposite direction for adolescent girls. Looking at the last two decades, the Violent Crime Index arrest rate for girls rose 103 percent from 1981 to 1997, compared to only 27 percent for boys.

The Department of Justice’s Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention held a meeting in March focusing on “Identifying and Meeting the Needs of This Nation’s Girls,” and “Investing in Girls” was the cover story of a recent issue of the OJJDP journal.

While there is some debate over whether the increase in female arrests is due to girl behavior or police crackdowns (“Are Girls Getting Worse, or Are Adults Getting Scared?,” Youth Today, Feb. 1999), there is a great deal of concern about the increase in girls and women in the criminal justice system, and a growing realization that many girls start down that path as victims. The article focused on a 1998 study of girls in the California juvenile justice system, where almost all (92 percent) reported that they had been victims of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

These very high numbers always raise eyebrows, and when the category is so vague, it is difficult to know what it means. Adolescents are notoriously sensitive to criticism and demands from adults – is it inevitable that most report that they are victims of emotional abuse? Other statistics from the study, however, are more compelling; for example, 25 percent report that they had been shot or stabbed one or more times, and most of their reports of rape or being beaten, stabbed, or shot were at the age of 13 and 14.

The picture that emerges from the research is that many girls first enter the juvenile justice system as runaways, often to escape abuse at home. Although three out of four girls in the California study reported regularly using drugs ( including alcohol), typically starting around age 14, the researchers believe that drugs are a symptom more than a cause of problems – used in an effort to dull the pain of being physically and sexually violated.

The jargon describing the girls’ families as “fragmented” doesn’t really convey what is going on in these girls’ homes. The girls reported that more than half the mothers have been arrested or incarcerated, and that slightly less than half the fathers had been incarcerated. In fact, so many of the girls had so little contact with their fathers that they may not have been able to answer that question.

School problems were also rampant. Eighty-five percent of the girls had been suspended or expelled, and many had also been in a “special classroom” or repeated at least one grade.

Almost all (88 percent) of the girls reported that they had experienced a serious health problem; 53 percent stated that they had received psychological services; and 21 percent had been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility.

Given their family backgrounds and other problems, it is somewhat surprising that most of the girls in the study were not charged with violent offenses. In fact, the most common charge was probation violation (36 percent). The study’s author believes that victimization and substance abuse often result in girls’ risky behaviors such as truancy, unsafe sex, and gang involvement, and the next step is the juvenile justice system. Once they get there, few effective programs are available.

The article ends with a focus on the need for services for eight-to-11-year-old girls, such as community-based all-girls schools that provide family counseling, substance abuse prevention, special education services and mentoring. If these girls get help from youth programs before the real problems begin, it may turn their lives around.


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