Sugar and Spice
Understanding the Health of Incarcerated Girls
Historically, it has been commonly accepted that males commit more offenses than females, even among juvenile populations. Most female offenders were involved in the criminal justice system through status offenses (running away, truancy), property offenses, and other nonviolent crimes. As females approach equality in society, so do they close the gap on the types of offenses as well as on arrest rates. This change may be due to girls' attempts to more closely mimic some boys' violent and aggressive behaviors or to the legal system's response of taking a less paternal role than it has in the past. Public policy, school policy, and greater societal changes in attitude regarding domestic and other forms of violence may also influence these changes. Over the last two decades, girls have increasingly entered the juvenile justice system at younger ages and with greater needs. Girls represent a minority within the juvenile correctional system. As such, their specific needs are often overlooked while the system focuses on the needs of the majority male population. In general, girls that end up in the juvenile system tend to represent the more severe cases of neglect, abuse, and victimization. They experience more serious medical and mental health needs and demonstrate lower selfesteem than their male counterparts. In a traditionally male predominated environment, girls have gender specific needs that the system may be ill equipped to provide.
In most cases, girls were victims themselves before they became offenders (Davis et al. 1997; Girls, Inc. 1996; Prescott 1997). When girls are angry, frightened, or unloved, they are more likely to strike inward than boys. They may hurt their bodies through prostitution, substance abuse, eating disorders, or self-mutilation. Other internalizing disorders may manifest themselves as depression and/or anxiety disorders. In one study, female incarcerated youth showed emotional symptoms of depression (28 percent) or anxiety (28 percent) (Kataoka et al. 2001).