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Girl Problems 

The juvenile justice system is ignoring delinquent girls -- and creating a social time bomb

Wednesday, Jul 19 2000
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Tanesha White, who's 17 years old, can be effusive, even charismatic. She is the girl in the group who, with a quick toss of black curls, speaks up loudest and throws the quickest comeback. And if, on good days, she has the outgoing personality befitting a student body president or a homecoming queen, there are also other days. On those days, Tanesha can come across as a girl with a whole lot of attitude, an in-your-face honesty, and an intimidating physical build.

Back in 1995, Tanesha decided to let the kids at her new school know that she just "didn't give a damn." While waiting for the bus after the second day of class, she attacked a random passer-by.

"I see this lady walking," Tanesha says, her voice hushing, as if she were telling a story around a campfire. "And I was like, 'I'm fit to go beat her up.' And the other kids were hypin' it up, and they dared me. So I just ran over and beat her up. And I was hella beating her up, just out of the blue. And then she's saying, 'I'm pregnant, I'm pregnant!' and I was like, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' And I ran and caught the bus and left.

"I still, to this day, don't know why I did it."

Tanesha (a pseudonym used in this article at her mother's request) has been in and out of San Francisco's juvenile hall a half-dozen times; the charges have involved shoplifting, physical assault, or a combination of those two offenses. She has attempted suicide three times, and she spent the first few months of this year locked up. She is still on probation.

Tanesha is, frankly, one of the better-adjusted members of the country's fastest-growing population of criminal offenders -- teenage girls. In San Francisco, the number of girls booked into juvenile hall has nearly doubled over the past decade, even as the number of boys in the juvenile system -- and juvenile crime as a whole -- continues to decline.

Girls are, obviously, different from boys. Girls become involved in crime for different reasons than boys do, and far more female teens have a background of physical or sexual abuse and exploitation than do their male counterparts. The juvenile justice system has never been equipped to deal effectively with the difference.

Like most cities across the country, San Francisco does not have enough slots in rehabilitation and residential programs for delinquent girls, so the girls end up sitting in juvenile hall longer than they should, waiting -- and waiting -- for placement. And when they are placed, it often is in programs that do not deal with the underlying causes of the girls' troubled, and troubling, behavior.

The failure to deal appropriately with girl crime has already exacted a social cost that comes in the form of a burgeoning population of adults who could be mothers and workers, but are, instead, hookers, crack addicts, and worse. Juvenile crime experts say that without basic changes in the way female delinquents are treated, that cost will increase. Perhaps exponentially.

The trend of female involvement in the criminal justice system is almost frighteningly clear:

" Percentage increase in the arrest rate for girls in the U.S. between 1981 and 1997: 103. (Violent Crime Index)

" Percentage increase for boys over same period: 27.

" Number of girls sent to S.F. juvenile hall in 1990: 448. (S.F. Juvenile Probation Office)

" Number sent in 1998: 841.

" Percentage increase in the number of women in the California criminal justice system over the last 20 years: 750. (California Department of Corrections)

" Current annual spending in California to imprison women: about $240 million. (California Department of Corrections)

" Annual spending in 1982: $29 million. (California Department of Corrections and Criminal Justice Institute)

" Percentage of San Francisco women criminals who became involved with crime as juveniles: more than 50. (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice)

" Percentage of delinquent girls in California who have mothers in jail or prison: 54. (National Center on Crime and Delinquency)

If the statistics seem compelling, the response to them, both in San Francisco and nationally, has been ineffective or nonexistent. Even though the number of girls sent into the juvenile justice system has been increasing for decades now, criminal justice authorities say that delinquent girls continue to be either ignored or shortchanged when it comes to services that might help them fundamentally alter the behavior and attitudes that led them into delinquency. In San Francisco, for example, a comprehensive list of girl-specific programs does not exist. Probation officers are often unaware of the female-targeted resources that are available, and therefore are unable to assign girl offenders to the proper rehabilitative programs.

There are many reasons that juvenile justice programs have historically focused on boys, and all but ignored girls. Chief among them is a simple reality: Boys commit more crimes -- and far more violent crimes -- than do girls. The arrest rate for boys is still five times higher than for girls nationwide, which is why Jack Jacqua, co-founder of San Francisco's Omega Boys Club, a respected group that has long dealt with young people involved in gangs, believes that the cry for girls' programs is nothing but the current "Baskin-Robbins cause of the month."

"Getting funding and getting programs for girl delinquents is currently politically correct," he says. "Girls do have girls' problems, and boys do have boys' problems. But both have bad attitudes. Both have bad habits, both are living bad lifestyles, both are in love with the material world. We need programs for girls, but what about the boys?"

But if boys still constitute the larger juvenile crime problem, the girls are gaining on them. Two hundred fewer boys were booked into San Francisco's juvenile hall in 1998 than in 1990; over the same time span, the number of girls booked rose by more than 400. And girls who commit crimes grow up to be women who commit crimes. Already, there are about 10,000 more women locked up in California than 20 years ago, a 750 percent jump compared to a 540 percent increase for men over the same time span.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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