Characteristics of Girls At Risk of Entering or Involved With the Juvenile Justice System
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Investing in Girls: A 21st Century Strategy

To address many of the challenges noted above, in 1998, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) conducted a multidimensional study of girls in the California juvenile justice system (Acoca and Dedel, 1998). To obtain an official perspective on female offenders, NCCD accessed juvenile justice system databases and conducted an indepth review of nearly 1,000 case files from multiple points within the probation systems of four California counties. In an effort to delve beneath the surface of statistical and official profiles and obtain the girls' description of their characteristics and needs, NCCD interviewed nearly 200 girls in county juvenile halls. The following study findings confirm the results from much of the research that has been conducted over the past 25 years by pioneers such as professors Meda Chesney-Lind, Joanne Belknap, and others. The findings also offer additional information that supports the need to reach girls early with intensive intervention and services before they reach the breaking point—that point in early adolescence when so much can go wrong in the lives of girls.

Victimization and Girls' Pathways to Offending

Leading academics who have examined the constellation of life circumstances typically shared by adult and juvenile female offenders have posited that they follow a unique route into the justice system. According to Belknap and Holsinger, "The most significantly and potentially useful criminological research in recent years has been the recognition of girls' and women's pathways to offending" (Belknap and Holsinger, 1998:1). These and other scholars have consistently identified victimization—physical, sexual, and emotional—as the first step along females' pathways into the juvenile and criminal justice systems and as a primary determinant of the types and patterns of offenses typically committed by girls and women.

Key findings of the 1998 NCCD study of girls in the California juvenile justice system confirm the pathways approach and closely parallel the findings of a 1995 survey of 151 adult female State prisoners; this survey revealed that one of the most universally shared attributes of adult female prisoners was a history of violent victimization (Acoca and Austin, 1996). Ninety-two percent of the juvenile female offenders interviewed in 1998 reported that they had been subjected to some form of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse (Acoca and Dedel, 1998). Despite their age, however, a higher number of the younger women interviewed reported that they had been physically abused, including 25 percent who reported that they had been shot or stabbed one or more times (Acoca and Dedel, 1998). Of critical importance to understanding why many women and girls begin to commit offenses are the early age at which they suffer abuse and the negative repercussions of this abuse on their lives.


Victimization—physical, sexual, and emotional—is the first step along femailes' pathways into the juvenile justice system.

Girl hugging a teddy bear The ages at which adolescent girls interviewed were reportedly most likely to be beaten, stabbed, shot, or raped were 13 and 14 (Acoca and Dedel, 1998). Not surprisingly, a high proportion of girls first enter the juvenile justice system as runaways, who often were seeking to escape abuse at home (Chesney-Lind and Shelden, 1998). In addition, 75 percent of young women interviewed reported regular use of drugs, including alcohol, which typically began at about age 14 (Acoca and Dedel, 1998:91).

Many academics and practitioners agree (Covington, 1998) and NCCD data reveal that clear correlations exist between the victimization of women and girls and specific high-risk behaviors such as serious drug abuse (Acoca and Dedel, 1998). One reason for this close connection is the capacity of mood-altering chemicals to temporarily dull the psychological devastation wrought by experiences of physical and sexual violation. Tragically, statistical analysis of interview data revealed that both the experience of victimization and substance abuse correlated with multiple risky behaviors including truancy, unsafe sexual activity, and gang involvement (Acoca and Dedel, 1998).


Certain abuses follow girls into the juvenile justice system.

Many girls report and, in some instances, NCCD field researchers have observed that certain abuses follow girls into the juvenile justice system. Specific forms of abuse reportedly experienced by girls from the point of arrest through detention include the consistent use by staff of foul and demeaning language, inappropriate touching, pushing and hitting, isolation, and deprivation of clean clothing. Some strip searches of girls were conducted in the presence of male officers, underscoring the inherent problem of adult male staff supervising adolescent female detainees. Of special concern were the routine nature of these acts and the pervasive atmosphere of disrespect toward the girls that they reported permeates not just juvenile justice settings, but also other community institutions.

Family Fragmentation

The data reveal that the families and caretakers of these girls were subject to a wide range of stressors, including poverty, death, and an intergenerational pattern of arrest and incarceration.

According to their case files, more than 95 percent of the girls were assessed as lacking a stable home environment, and 11 percent had experienced or witnessed the death of one or both parents or a sibling. Many of the girls interviewed recalled moving back and forth between relatives while they were growing up or being placed in a foster or group home, typically between the ages of 12 and 14, through the child welfare or juvenile justice system.

More than one-half (54 percent) of the girls interviewed reported having mothers who had been arrested or incarcerated. By contrast, 46 percent of the girls' fathers had reportedly been locked up at some point, and 15 percent of the fathers were reportedly incarcerated at the time of the interview. Interviews with the girls indicated that some girls had little or no contact with their fathers, which could account for the lower reported percentage of incarcerated fathers.

Extending the theme of family fragmentation into the next generation, "an alarming 83 percent of the young women interviewed who were mothers reported that they had been separated from their infants within the first three months of their children's lives, a pivotal developmental stage" (Acoca and Dedel, 1998:11). Further, 54 percent of girls who were mothers had not had a single visit with their child or children while in detention or placement (Acoca and Dedel, 1998).

Academic Failure and Schools as a Battleground

Failing in school was almost as universal an experience as victimization in the lives of the girls interviewed. Ninety-one percent of girls reported that they had experienced one or more of the following: being suspended or expelled, repeating one or more grades, and/or being placed in a special classroom. Eighty-five percent of girls had been expelled or suspended, and the median age for the first of these experiences was 13. Of girls placed in special classrooms, only 1 percent said that the placement helped them stay out of trouble. Finally, many girls described school as a battleground in which sexual harassment, racism, interpersonal rivalries with peers, and inattention from adult professionals made dropping out appear to be a necessary means of escape.

Health and Mental Health Issues

Eighty-eight percent of the girls interviewed for this study reported that they had experienced one or more serious physical health problems and more than half (53 percent) stated that they needed psychological services. Twenty-four percent said that they had seriously considered suicide, and 21 percent had been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility on at least one occasion.

Twenty-nine percent of the girls interviewed had been pregnant one or more times and 16 percent had been pregnant while in custody. Of those girls who had been pregnant in custody, 23 percent had miscarried and 29 percent had been placed in physical restraints at some point, usually during transport.

Nonserious, Nonviolent Offense Patterns

Consistent with studies of the offense patterns of girls conducted since the 1970's, the majority of girls surveyed were charged with less serious offenses (e.g., property, drug, and status offenses) then violent offenses (e.g., murder, assault). The highest percentage (36 percent) of these girls were probation violators, many of whom reported that their first offense was running away, truancy, curfew violation, or some other status offense. Girls in Southern California reported that having a tattoo or wearing baggy clothes that could be perceived as markers of gang affiliation were sufficient to bring them into contact with law enforcement. Once they were placed on probation, any subsequent offense, even another status offense, became a violation of a valid court order and a vector for their greater involvement in the juvenile justice system.


Case files of girls revealed most assault charges to be the result of nonserious, mutual combat situations with parents.

Nonserious, Nonviolent Offense Patterns Qualitative analysis of the circumstances surrounding the offenses of the relatively high percentage (34 percent) of girls reporting person offenses (including assault, robbery, homicide, and weapons offenses) revealed a disturbing picture. A majority of the girls' more serious charges fell into the assault category. A close reading of the case files of girls charged with assault revealed that most of these charges were the result of nonserious, mutual combat situations with parents. In many cases, the aggression was initiated by the adults. The following descriptions excerpted from case files are typical and telling: "Father lunged at her while she was calling the police about a domestic dispute. She (girl) hit him." "She (girl) was trying to sneak out of the house at night, but mom caught her and pushed her against the wall." In some instances, the probation reports describing the assaults indicate the incongruous nature of many of these incidents. In one case, a girl was arrested for throwing cookies at her mother.


The disparate treatment of minorities appears to be an important factor.

The small number of girls arrested for the most serious offenses—robbery, homicide, and weapons offenses—reportedly committed these crimes almost exclusively within the context of their relationships with codefendants. These relationships fell into two distinct categories: dependent or equal. The first group included girls who were following the lead of male offenders (often adults) who were typically the primary perpetrators of the crime. The second group included girls functioning in female-only groups or mixed-gender groups (including gangs) as equal partners in the commission of their offenses. Finally, the availability of weapons and an increased willingness to use them appeared to be factors in girls' involvement with serious and violent crime. Although the exact relationship between gang membership and more serious offenses committed by girls was not determined, nearly half of the girls interviewed (47 percent) reported gang affiliation, and 71 percent of these girls stated that they had been "very involved."

The disparate treatment of minorities appears to be an important factor in the processing of girls' cases. Nationally and in the NCCD sample, approximately two-thirds of the girls in the juvenile justice system are minorities, primarily African American and Hispanic. Statistical analysis of the NCCD interview data revealed a significant relationship between the girls' racial status and their drug use, history, and offense type. In summary, although whites reported the most drug use, compared with other racial groups, they were significantly more likely to also report that their most recent charge was a probation violation. By contrast, African Americans and Hispanics, despite significantly less drug involvement, were equally likely to report that their most recent charge was for a drug/property or person offense as they were to report a current probation violation.

The Breaking Point

NCCD interviews with girls in the juvenile justice system revealed a remarkable convergence of traumatic experiences and risky behaviors between the ages of 12 and 14. To recapitulate a few of these, the median age at which girls reported first becoming victims of sexual assault was 13 and the median age at which they were first shot or stabbed was 14. Thirteen was the age at which girls were most likely to report becoming sexually active and 14 was the median age at which they delivered their first child. In terms of risky behaviors, girls were most likely to begin using alcohol and other drugs, experience their first suspension or expulsion from school, run away from home, and not surprisingly, experience their first arrest at ages 13 and 14. All these events generally occur in communities in which virtually all institutions—families, schools, and public agencies, including juvenile justice—are failing girls.

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