Violent Adolescent Females

Article excerpt

"Female gangsters" or "eight ball chicks" are buzzwords used by the media to describe the instigators of and participants in the perceived rise in adolescent female violence. These females are increasingly portrayed as ruthless and immoral, and their offenses often are compared to the violent crimes of their male counterparts. A recent news special on gangs in California depicted adolescent females not only as violent gang members but as leaders in predominantly male gangs. These images support the notion that female juvenile violence is on the rise.

In the early 1990s, there was a resurgence of girls, often girls of color, engaging in nontraditional, masculine behavior - notably joining gangs, carrying guns and fighting with other girls. Some researchers suggest that the increase has been dramatic, citing statistical data which indicates that female juvenile arrests for violent crimes increased 125 percent between 1985 and 1994. In an article in The New York Times, F.R. Lee highlighted localities that have identified significant increases in felony arrests of adolescent females, including New York City - a 48 percent increase from 1986 to 1990; New Jersey - a 67 percent increase between 1980 and 1990; and Connecticut - a 62 percent increase from 1986 through 1990.

Other researchers suggest that the increase is not as dramatic as projected by the media and governmental analyses. Girls Inc., a youth advocacy group, asserts that the absolute numbers of girls arrested for violent crimes are so small that any numerical change will correspond to a large percentage change. Others caution that the reclassification of some status offenses as violent offenses is a possible explanation for a portion of the perceived increase.

An analysis of gender differences in juveniles' arrests between 1980 and 1995 in the United States indicated that although the female juvenile portion of the total arrest rate increased by about 4 percent during this time period, and the girls' portion of aggravated assault increased by 5 percent, their proportion of arrests for murder or nonnegligent manslaughter decreased by 2 percent and their portion of forcible rape arrests has remained constant at 2 percent.

Shift Toward Violence

The female percentage of the juvenile justice population has remained constant over a period of time; what is changing in conjunction with the numbers are the types of crimes for which females are arrested and incarcerated. Females historically have come into contact with the system primarily for status offenses (those offenses which are crimes only by virtue of the age of the offender, such as running away, incorrigibility, etc.). Females still are overrepresented in the juvenile system due to status offenses, but a shift toward violent crimes is evident. The origin and reasons for this apparent shift have not fully been identified.

The most common violent offenses for which juvenile females are arrested are aggravated assault and robbery. The arrest rates for these offenses increased 62 percent and 43 percent, respectively, between 1989 and 1993. Additional research suggests ethnic variation in offending behavior may account in part for these shifts in the commission of violent offenses, particularly for ethnic minority populations who are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. Researcher Sharon Tracy found that African-American adolescent females commit more robberies and simple assaults than Caucasian females. Those Caucasian females who do engage in serious and violent crime, however, demonstrate this pattern at an earlier age than their ethnic minority counterparts.

Factors precipitating the increase in violent offending by adolescent females are numerous and complex. While available research examining these factors is virtually nonexistent, there is substantially more research examining adolescent females as the victims of violence and abuse. Dr. Ruth Wells reported that adolescent females are four times more likely than adolescent males to be physically and/or verbally abused. …