Setting the Record "Straight": Girls, Sexuality, and the Juvenile Correctional System

By Pasko, Lisa | Social Justice, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Setting the Record "Straight": Girls, Sexuality, and the Juvenile Correctional System


Pasko, Lisa, Social Justice


In here, having a "relationship" with another girl? And it's sexual? It's a crime. Period.--Therapist, residential facility

BEFORE THE MID-1970S, MOST FORMAL DISCUSSIONS OF JUVENILE CORRECTIONS did not include an explicit concentration on girls. Today, however, female juvenile offenders are no longer invisible and have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the juvenile justice system. For example, in 1975 girls represented 15% of juvenile arrests in the United States; 30 years later, they accounted for nearly one-third (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008). Juvenile court data suggest a similar trend: girls now comprise nearly one-third of all referred delinquency cases, and their adjudications have increased by 300% over the past three decades (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2006).

Girls also have become an increasing proportion of juveniles in custody. By the turn of the century, girls' detentions rose by nearly 100%, and their commitments to secure facilities increased by 88% (Sickmund, 2004). In terms of private institutionalization, girl offenders, particularly chronic status offenders (runaway, truancy, and incorrigibility charges), were also more likely to be admitted to residential placements, training schools, or group homes, in comparison to their male counterparts who were more likely to receive day treatment (Chesney-Lind and Sheldon, 2004: 211). As a result, girls now make up 12 to 20% of all youth commitments. Due to the limited number of beds available in long-term state facilities, girls often wait nearly five months in detention for a residential placement to open.

These findings have led scholars to examine current custodial conditions for girls, the institutional expectations that can exacerbate their future pathways back into the juvenile justice system, and the rationale behind correctional discretion and the decisions made for them (e.g., Bloom et al., 2002; Chesney-Lind and Sheldon, 2004; Mallicoat, 2007; Schaffner, 2006). Despite the growing academic

interest in female juvenile offenders, studies on girls, sex, and juvenile corrections remain neglected and fairly scarce in the field of criminal or social justice. In particular, the literature fails to show how the institution of youth corrections deals with lesbian, bisexual, and questioning (LBQ) youth and how such management techniques consequently affect girl offenders' identities and relationships. (1) This article addresses this paucity and uses feminist critical criminology to interrogate correctional professionals' perceptions of LBQ issues. Overall, it shows how staff construct and penalize girls for their within-institution sexual identity and activity.

History of Girls, Sexuality, and the Youth Correctional System

In the early years of the juvenile justice system, adolescent offenders were viewed as "little adults," often receiving punishments--in the form of retaliation, retribution, and banishment--commensurate with older lawbreakers. By the late 1800s, increases in immigration, urbanization, and industrial jobs heightened poverty and subsequent societal concerns. Poor became synonymous with delinquent, as poor and neglected children often turned to criminal activity as a means of dealing with familial neglect and abandonment (Platt, 1977; Champion, 2001). Because incarceration with adult offenders did not seem to deter youth from criminal behavior, reform schools--Houses of Refuge--were founded. Their primary intent was to provide discipline and education to incorrigible youth who lacked desirable character--to "save" these children from themselves and their surroundings (Platt, 1977).

The movement to create separate institutions for juvenile offenders was part of the larger Progressive Movement that, among other things, was ardently troubled about "social evils" such as prostitution (Chesney-Lind and Pasko, 2003: 56-57; Rafter, 1990: 54). …

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