Investing in Girls: A 21st Century Strategy

Leslie Acoca, M.A., M.F.C.C., Director of the Women and Girls Institute, National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), has served as Principal Investigator on two major studies profiling girls in the juvenile justice system. The Institute conducts research and develops programs and training curriculums tat reduce the entry and reentry of young women and women into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
As Americans look back over the 20th century, the increasing criminalization of girls and women and the realization that they now make up the fastest growing segments of the juvenile and criminal justice systems must spark a major public response. Further, as a comprehensive national strategy to promote public safety into the 21st century is developed, the youngest and least visible female offenders—adolescent girls—and their children must be a core focus. Given the developmental and childbearing potential of these young women and the generally low risk they pose to their communities, addressing their needs offers the Nation its best hope of halting the intergenerational cycle of family fragmentation and crime.

Any effort to understand and develop strategies to reverse the accelerating entry of girls into the juvenile justice system must begin with an examination of the current statistical picture. Between 1993 and 1997, increases in arrests were greater (or decreases smaller) for girls than for boys in almost every offense category (Snyder, in press). The 748,000 arrests of girls younger than 18 years old in 1997 represent 26 percent of all juvenile arrests made that year. This proportion has been climbing slowly since 1986 when girls constituted 22 percent of all juvenile arrests (Chesney-Lind and Shelden, 1998).

Buttressing claims that girls are beginning to catch up with boys in terms of their involvement with more serious and violent crimes, the Violent Crime Index arrest rate for girls rose 103 percent between 1981 and 1997, compared with a 27 percent increase for boys during the same time period. In assessing this disproportionate rise, however, one should keep in mind that the arrest rate for juvenile males for these crimes remains five times that for females (Snyder, in press).

It should also be noted that the greatest increases in arrests of girls between 1993 and 1997 were for drug abuse and curfew violations (Snyder, in press). The escalating number of girls arrested for drug-related offenses should be of particular concern as should the results of a 1998 survey indicating that substance use and abuse among adolescent girls in the general population are rising (Drug Strategies, 1998). Other studies indicate that the unprecedented increase in the number of incarcerated adult women since the early 1980's has largely been due to drug-related offending (Mauer and Huling, 1995).

There have also been greater increases in the number of delinquency cases involving young women handled by juvenile courts than in those pertaining to young men. Between 1986 and 1995, the number of delinquency cases involving girls increased 68 percent, compared with a 40-percent increase in those involving boys (Sickmund, 1997). Further, paralleling the changes evident in arrest statistics, "the relatively greater increase in cases involving females was due to changes in person offense cases (up 146% for females versus 87% for males) and property offense cases (up 50% among females compared with 17% among males)" (Sickmund, 1997:3).

Are girls traditionally drawn into the juvenile justice system for less serious crimes than their male counterparts?

On the surface, these broad national data seem to indicate dramatic increases in the proportion and seriousness of delinquent acts committed by girls. However, the reality underlying the statistics is hotly disputed by researchers and policymakers. Are girls becoming more violent, or are recent trends partially an artifact of girls' lower base rate of arrests and delinquency cases since the 1970's (Chesney-Lind and Shelden, 1998)? What influences do changing and often less tolerant family and societal attitudes toward girls, shifts in law enforcement practices (particularly toward gangs), and the increasing availability of weaponry exert on girls' offending? And finally, are girls traditionally drawn into the juvenile justice system for less serious crimes than their male counterparts?

What is beyond dispute is the need to construct a blueprint for a comprehensive continuum of gender-responsive prevention, intervention, and graduated sanctions services that can be tailored to meet the needs of diverse jurisdictions. Equally clear is the requirement that any such blueprint have as its foundation a research-based profile of the characteristics, needs, and life circumstances of girls at risk of entering the juvenile justice system and those already involved with the system. External barriers such as the paucity of programs specifically designed for girls and the anticipated impact of new Federal welfare and adoption legislation on adolescent mothers and their children should also be taken into account. Addressing these issues can no longer be an afterthought. Specific Federal, State, and local legislative and organizational remedies must be sought.