“Bad girls”

By Michelle Chen Jul 24, 2009

Zoot suit riots, West Side Story, Bloods and Crips—America has long had a fascination with the deviant teen. While the dramatic narrative has always been threaded with race and class struggle, the gender dimension of youth "delinquency" is often pushed into the backdrop. According to the Government Accountability Office’s recent report on programs dealing with "girls’ delinquency," girls and boys are on surprisingly divergent trajectories in their dealings with law enforcement:

from 1995 through 2005, delinquency caseloads for girls in juvenile justice courts nationwide increased 15 percent while boys’ caseloads decreased by 12 percent. Also, from 1995 through 2005, the number of girls’ cases nationwide involving detention increased 49 percent compared to a 7 percent increase for boys. More recently, in 2007, 29 percent of juvenile arrests—about 641,000 arrests—involved girls, who accounted for 17 percent of juvenile violent crime arrests and 35 percent of juvenile property crime arrests.

Moreover, the GAO found, there’s a severe lack of research on what programs are effective at reducing or preventing delinquency among girls. According to a 2001 American Bar Association report, “multiple stressors” drive young women into criminal justice involvement, including physical and sexual abuse, separation from parents, mental health issues, and problems in school. One study found that girls are disproportionately incarcerated for nonviolent “status” offenses, like prostitution or running away—that is, “criminal” behavior that might in fact be a desperate response to abuse, poverty or other problems not within their control. In addition to often entering the system in a very vulnerable state, girls are routinely subjected to abuse while incarcerated. And, reflecting general racial patterns in the criminal justice system:

African American girls make up nearly half of all those in secure detention and Latinas constitute 13%. Although whites constitute 65% of the population of at-risk girls, they account for only 34% of girls in secure detention. Seven of every 10 cases involving white girls are dismissed, compared with 3 of every 10 cases for African American girls.

Yet the public dialogue on women of color and juvenile justice is prone to many blindspots, due to stereotypes and distorted perceptions about gender dynamics. In a Justice Department paper on female gang involvement, researchers wrote:

Autonomy and male dominance, which are ongoing issues for all female gangs, tend to vary with ethnicity. For example, gender expectations in each ethnic group might suggest that African American and white female gang members would be more autonomous and Latinas more subordinate to males. They usually are, but not always. In other words, there is no universal ethnic continuum. Indeed, some factors related to female autonomy and male dominance affect gang members regardless of ethnicity. Male unemployment and the incarceration of the many males who are convicted of illegal economic activities remove males from both Latino and African American households. As a result, women must rely on their own resources to support themselves and their children.

The juvenile justice system pits society’s belief in law and order with its compassion for young people in tough circumstances, and that tension amplifies every underlying inequality. The lack of knowledge about girls caught up in the system not only deprives them of critical support and interventions; it also reveals how little we understand about the interplay of gender, race and culture in our homes and neighborhoods. Image: Zoot suit girls (Old Memories Los Angeles Chapter)