Unequal Treatment in Juvenile Courts Critics Say Girl Offenders Languish in System Designed for, and Overwhelmed by, Boys

By Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Unequal Treatment in Juvenile Courts Critics Say Girl Offenders Languish in System Designed for, and Overwhelmed by, Boys


Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When Mia was 15, her mother kicked her out of the house. She called a child-abuse hotline and ended up back home. The next year, after enduring physical abuse, Mia ran away from home. This time she was picked up by police and taken into state custody.

"Then I just went from group home to group home to group home without knowing what was going on," says the teenager, who is now living in a St. Charles, Mo., transitional home for teens.

Hundreds of runaway girls like Mia (not her real name) are languishing in a juvenile-court system designed for males and overwhelmed by violent boys. The result, say a growing number of critics, is a system that treats girls harsher for minor offenses.

In 1994, about 678,500 girls were arrested in the United States. The majority of this group was charged with "status offenses," such as running away, truancy, curfew violations, or underage drinking - behaviors that are only illegal when committed by a juvenile.

"Historically, the concept of a juvenile delinquent has been stereotyped as a male," says James Braun, president of Youth in Need, a nonprofit group in St. Charles, Mo. And the majority of violent offenses are still committed by boys. Only 14 percent of young people arrested for violent offenses in 1994 were girls, according to the FBI.

Yet girls are being treated more harshly than boys for lesser offenses, according to a new study from the nonprofit group Girls Inc. and the US Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Girls are more than twice as likely to be detained before a hearing and are detained three to five times longer than boys.

"Given the {lack of} severity of the offenses for which girls are arrested, the reliance on institutionalization is shocking," says Meda Chesney-Lind, author of "Girls, Delinquency, and Juvenile Justice."

Double standard

Regina Montoya, national president of Girls Inc., blames a "paternalistic double standard."

"You've got girls who are in for status offenses who are being treated very, very harshly in programs designed for the problems that boys have," she says.

The courts have a tendency to put girls in protective custody "for their own protection" when that is not the case with boys, agrees Mr. Braun.

Once they are in the court system, girls also have fewer placement options. About 37 percent of public juvenile-justice facilities are male-only. Another 57 percent serve boys and girls. …

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