Meeting the Needs of Juvenile Female Offenders

Article excerpt

Thirteen-year-old Keisha is in a juvenile correctional facility for a felony offense committed at her last placement. "She was just beginning to work on her family issues and then one day she went ballistic." Keisha's social worker said. Keisha is multiracial--black, Native American and white. Her mother, Margaret, was released from prison and is an addict, unable to care for herself, much less her six children. Keisha is the third oldest of Margaret's children and has not lived with her since she was 3 years old. She feels abandoned by her mother and has been shuttled back and forth between her mother's relatives on an Indian reservation during most of her childhood.

Unfortunately, Keisha's story is a familiar one to juvenile justice professionals. Juvenile court, probation, detention, corrections and continuing and aftercare/transition services staff are increasingly called upon to meet the unique needs of a growing number of juvenile female offenders within their service delivery areas.

Juvenile Female Offending

Female juvenile offenders are a small portion of the overall juvenile offender population and comprise an even smaller portion of the violent juvenile offender population. However, the way in which the juvenile system is responding to this population is changing. New efforts to objectively classify juvenile female offending patterns have drawn attention to the unique needs of this population.

Good statistical data have not always been available on female juvenile offenders. Early critics of the juvenile justice system's response to juvenile female offenders cited discrepancies in the reporting and processing of both female status offenses and delinquent acts. Before the mid-1960s, formal discussions of juvenile offenders, or the systems in which they found themselves, did not include any specific information on the behaviors of this population. This changed during the late 1960s and 1970s, when a marked increase in female delinquency drove researchers to try to explain these numbers. As a result, researchers began to track female offending patterns separately.

In recent years, as juvenile crime has decreased overall, the rate of involvement of juvenile female offenders in the nation's juvenile justice system has increased. From 1988 to 1997, the rate of delinquency cases involving female juvenile offenders increased 83 percent. (1) While this increase is not the most dramatic increase in the history of juvenile female offending--between 1960 and 1975, arrests of female juvenile offenders rose more than 239 percent--it does represent the ongoing challenge of female delinquency. (2)

It remains true that juvenile courts continue to see most female juvenile offenders for status offenses. Even when females are involved in delinquent behaviors, their arrests are often for nonviolent offenses such as prostitution, embezzlement, forgery and counterfeiting. Girls continue to represent only about one-fourth of all arrests for juveniles. For instance, in 1999, arrests of girls under 18 represented only 27 percent of all juvenile arrests. (3)

A prevailing belief is that the rate of violent juvenile female offenders is continuing to rise at an alarming rate. Juvenile females represented 26 percent of all juvenile arrests, with violent crime index offenses accounting for only 16 percent of that total. It should be noted that most girls arrested for violent offenses involve charges of aggravated assault, rather than for murder or non-negligent homicide. (4) This information is noteworthy and should be considered to ensure that the issue of violent juvenile female offenders is not overstated. While the number of girls involved in violent offending behavior is relatively small, agencies should not use this as an excuse for not thoroughly examining and analyzing the nature and context of this behavior and other more typical juvenile female offending behaviors in their service delivery areas. …