Ashley, 16-year-old female offender

DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)–Sixteen-year-old Ashley nervously fingered the laminated identity bracelet cuffing her wrist, the mandatory fashion accessory at the Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center in Dallas.

The young Latina–whose last name is not being used to preserve her anonymity–was being detained for violating her probation for an earlier crime by unlawfully carrying a gun. In accordance with Texas law, a pretrial hearingwas to be held that afternoon to see if shewould be held in detention or sent to a treatment center for drug abuse. Her attorney and the prosecutor would meet with the judge to discuss the merits of her case and whether or not it would go to trial. She would not be present.

In Texas, the attorney represents only the child, not the family, so family members are also not required to be present at the hearing. It makes no difference if the parents disagree with the attorney’s decision. The attorney is presumed to act in the best interest of the child.

Ashley, clad in the center’s regulation baggy, blue elastic-waist pants and matching smock, talked easily for most of the interview. But when the question of her past violent behavior arose, she cast down her brown eyes and struggled to find the right words.

"The most violent thing I’ve ever done was robbed somebody. I was 14," she whispered. "After we took his money, I hit him upside the head with a bottle. We robbed him because we were high."

Ashley committed her first offenses–evading arrest and being in a stolen car–at age 12. With a family history of physical and drug abuse, in addition, to being a chronic run-away, and a junior-high drop out, her so-called risk factors for winding up in a detention center such as Henry Wade were fairly high, according to sociologists.

Reasons Behind Violent Crime Increase Unclear

Violent crime among girls is a topic of growing research and debate as an increasing number of U.S. girls wind up in places like the Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center.

The Crime Index for violent crimes, issued by the FBI, indicates that the arrest rate for girls in the United States rose 103 percent between 1981 and 1997. During that same period, the arrest rate for boys rose only 27 percent.

Amid that overall rise in arrests of female teens, the FBI’s October report, Crime in the United States 2002, documents a surge of arrests of girls for violent offenses by the more than 17,000 city, county and state law enforcement agencies that participated in the report.

Between 1993 and 2002, girls under 18-years-old who were arrested for violent offenses rose by 7 percent in the category of aggravated assault. Such arrests among boys fell 29 percent. Perhaps the most dismaying finding was a 46 percent rise of females who were a party to forcible rape. Among males, the figure fell by 28 percent.

Are girls really becoming more violent? Researchers aren’t sure.

"The juvenile justice system used to be about 95 percent male and 5 percent female," says Dr. Elizabeth Cauffman, assistant professor of law and psychiatry research at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh. "For whatever reason, we’re seeing a shift. Now, it’s 80 percent male, 20 percent female and it’s still climbing. It could very well be that girls are becoming more violent. We don’t know."

Cauffman attributes some of that shift to schools’ adoption of stricter disciplinary codes and the loss of mental health programs serving troubled girls.

"In the past, girls used to go to mental health institutions and boys would get locked up. Now, there’s not as many facilities for girls and so they get incarcerated," says Cauffman. "Also, a lot of schools have zero tolerance policies, which classify threats as aggravated assaults."

Though members of academia would rather not rush to judge girls as being more violent today than in the past, many of those on the frontlines of female delinquency have made up their minds.

"The girls are becoming more violent and sophisticated," says Florence Barnes, a juvenile court liaison officer with 22 years experience in the Dallas juvenile justice system. "We’ve had girls for murder over the years, but we’re seeing more and more girls for fondling and molesting little boys."

Administrators at alternative education schools, usually the first stop for many female juvenile offenders on their way into the juvenile penal system, also say there is a trend toward greater violence among girls.

"We started noticing this increase in middle school a year ago," says Richard Heikes, principal of the Warren Alternative Education Center in Garland, Texas. "It’s continuing on into high school. Right now, in my middle school (classes) we’re 50-50, males and females. It used to be 70-30 or 80-20. The girls are offending just as badly as the boys."

Ashley herself admits that things aren’t the way they used to be on the streets.

‘We Like to Use Guns Now’

"A lot of my friends, we like to use guns now," said Ashley, who was arrested four times prior to her current detention. "But back in the days, it wasn’t like that."

Research has shown that young female offenders are more likely to be victims of a traumatic experience, to have suicidal tendencies and to be more apt to "act out" their anger rather than internalize it, as is more typical among female teens.

Conceding that the juvenile justice system isn’t traditionally geared to serve female teens, officials and experts admit that a second look is needed in knowing how to treat this growing and desperate population.

"Girls have been ignored for a very long time in the system," says Dr. Cauffman. "They made up such a small percentage that nobody paid attention to them. So the fact that they’re increasing in numbers gives them the recognition, but now, it’s like, what do we do?"

The National Criminal Justice Reference Service’s Web page, Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System, indicates that several states have tried or are trying to implement specific treatment programs for female juvenile offenders. Yet, no national standards are in place. Young females’ access to such programs depends on the budgetary conditions and policy priorities of individual cities and states.

Florida is one such state trying to address the needs of their growing female juvenile offender population. In addition to being one of the first states to establish facilities geared for girls with a history of violent offenses and developing special services to deter delinquent behavior in the juvenile population, the Tallahassee-based Florida Department of Juvenile Justice also operates several centers for girls who are at risk of dropping out of school or have been involved in minor crimes. In line with their commitment to implementing gender-specific programming, the state juvenile justice system received a federal grant to launch the statewide program, Girls Initiative, which provides support for the needs of female offenders ages 10-17.

For gender-specific programs to be effective, however, researchers say they must meet specific needs. The Washington-based Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention identifies those needs as including: "space that is physically and emotionally safe, away from situations where the focus is on male attention; time to have comforting, challenging and nurturing conversations; education about women’s health issues and female development and opportunities to make positive changes within their relationships and within their community."

"Girls are the most difficult clients because they are so complex," said Florence Barnes. "They try to make you figure out what’s wrong with them instead of being straightforward like the boys."

Wanting Out, But Unable to Walk Away

It may be because the girls aren’t quite sure themselves.

"I really want to be something," declared Ashley, who said she has a history of using drugs like marijuana and cocaine. "But then again, I just feel like it’s impossible because I’m so far into this lifestyle I’m living. I really want help but then again, there’s some things I don’t want to let go of."

At Ashley’s pretrial hearing, it was determined that she would be placed in a drug treatment facility in Dallas. She was placed on Nov. 12 and ran away five days later. Currently, there is a warrant for her arrest.

Marisa Trevino is a freelance writer and a public radio commentator in Dallas.



For more information:

National Criminal Justice Reference Service–
Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System:

Florida Department of Juvenile Justice–
The Girls Initiative: