Lawyers Report Rise in Arrest and Jailing of Girls

Experts say there's a pool of anger in violent, delinquent girls, and their numbers are increasing dramatically. Many have been abused, yet they seldom get the help that treats their trauma and addresses the causes of their destructive behavior.

Martha Barnett

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-Less than a year after 14-year-old Fabia Clark was released from an eight-month term in juvenile prison for striking a classmate, she was arrested at school with a quarter pound of marijuana. Pregnant and fearful of the responsibilities of raising a child on her own, she said she sold drugs because she felt she had no other choice.

"I was too young to get a job, so I was selling to get money," Clark, now 16, said in an interview. "I felt like I had to take care of things myself."

Clark grew up in Tampa, Fla., in a single-parent home torn by frequent arguments. She was 9 when she first met her father, a man who spent most of her young life in prison. That same year, she was sexually abused by a stranger. The effects of that violation would linger, making her increasingly withdrawn, self-protective and angry.

Clark's history of abuse, assault, drug use and difficult family relations is typical of a repetitive, female juvenile offender, social service workers said, and cases like hers are increasing dramatically.

Female delinquency cases rose 83 percent from 1988 to 1997, from about 225,000 cases to 412,000, according to a new study, "Justice by Gender."

The report is the result of an unprecedented joint project by the American Bar Association, the nation's largest professional organization of lawyers, and the National Bar Association, the oldest and largest professional organization for African-American attorneys.

"While juvenile crime rates-particularly those for violent crimes-have steadily decreased since peaking in 1994, arrest, detention and disposition custody data show an increase in both the number and percentage of girls in the juvenile justice system-a trend that runs counter to that of boys," the study said.

But despite the increase in cases, Martha Barnett, president of the ABA, and Evett L. Simmons, president of the NBA, believe the system is failing girls because of a lack of adequate prevention and detention programs to help them.

"At every point in the process, the juvenile justice system presents girls with a narrower range of options," Barnett said at a Washington press conference where the study was released in April. "For girls, there are fewer alternatives to arrest, longer waits in detention and fewer choices about placement. ... That must change-and quickly."

"Girls have received second-class treatment and historically have been neglected by the system," added Simmons.

The report also found:

  • An increase in the use of detention for juvenile girls. More girls than boys were detained for minor offenses, such as public disorder, probation violations, traffic violations and status offenses-actions that are crimes only because of the perpetrator's age (29 percent of girls compared with 19 percent of boys).
  • A 65-percent increase in the use of detention for girls in cases of status offense, such as running away, compared with a 30-percent increase for boys.
  • A dramatic rise in the arrest of girls for assault in an apparent result of changes in law enforcement practices for domestic violence and "get-tough" policies for teen delinquency. According to Justice Department data, between 1990 and 1999 the number of assault arrests of girls increased by 85 percent, from 24,062 in 1990 to 44,524 in 1999.Comparatively, boys' assault arrests increased 22 percent over the same nine years, from 91,437 in 1990 to 111,263 in 1999. The numbers represent all types of assault arrests, including aggravated assault.
  • A possible ethnic bias in detention decisions. Between 1985 and 1995, minority females in detention grew from 43 percent to 56.4 percent of the population. Whites made up 65 percent of the at-risk population of girls, however, and only accounted for 34 percent of girls in detention. Delinquency cases increased in all races, however.

The report's statistics illustrate the result of several national trends in law enforcement, experts outside the bar associations say.

Girls May Not Be More Violent, Just More Likely to Be Arrested

For example, despite the increase in reported violent behavior, many experts believe that girls are not necessarily more violent. Instead, according to Howard Synder of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, girls are being arrested for activities that once would have been unreported or were handled by social workers. Family fights are now ending in arrests, even for juveniles.

Evett Simmons"Twenty years ago, police didn't bring them in," Synder said, referring to juveniles involved in domestic fights. "Police called it incorrigible. Now a lot of these crimes have new administration rules where someone has got to get arrested."

Synder said the increase in aggravated assault arrests of juvenile girls is the main contributor to the increase in the number of arrests for violent crimes.

Dayna Phillips from Tampa, Fla., is a living example of the trend. Now 16, she was arrested for domestic battery in a fight with her mother last year, what experts would call a "re-labeling of domestic violence."

At the time of the arrest, Phillips said, her mother had tried to hit her with a shoe during an argument. Phillips blocked it with her arm, she said, and then called the police for help.

But instead of breaking up the fight, the police arrested Dayna Phillips for battery.

Paternalistic Police May Arrest Girls to ‘Protect' Them

The zero-tolerance attitude developing in dealing with juvenile delinquents is coupled with the system's paternal notions of protecting young girls, psychologists and juvenile workers said.

Francine Sherman, director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College Law School, said police officers often pick up girls for offenses such as public disorder because they are trying to "protect them."

"There has always been this paternal protection of girls," she said. "There is still a ‘boys will be boys' attitude in the system."

Sherman and the bar study suggested that these paternal attitudes were behind the growing number of girls in detention, especially in the handling of minor status offenses, such as running away, curfew violation and loitering.

"We need to look critically at how girls enter the system and how they are treated once in the system," said Sherman. "Basically, we are not succeeding."

Psychologists and many juvenile justice officials advocate more treatment programs to address mental health issues, such as depression, that may appear as a result of physical and sexual abuse.

Gayle Turner, an administrator in the District of Columbia Department of Human Services, said her department had not seen the increase in females indicated by the national study. But the counselors at the department's Oak Hill Youth Center have begun to recognize the different needs of boys and girls in the system.

As part of their program, Turner said youth counselors are addressing female mental health issues.

Girls in Jail Consider Suicide More Often

"By and large girls tend to give more thought to suicide than their counterparts," Turner said. "We work on their sense of self-worthiness in society and address ethnic and gender differences, because they exist."

One important gender distinction is the lives the juveniles have led prior to their arrest.

"Girls are more often the victims of physical, sexual and psychological abuse," said Dr. Marty Beyer, a clinical psychologist and juvenile justice consultant in Virginia. Beyer said she believed delinquency programs would be more effective if they recognized and treated trauma as part of their programming.

"We need to design services where we are teaching these girls new ways of reacting," Beyer said. "There is a pool of anger in these girls. When they are provoked, they may be flooded with feelings of the past. If they can recognize that pool, it could help them make peace and form alternative responses."

Sabra Ayres is a graduate student in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She is currently a Washington correspondent for the Billings Gazette in Montana.

For more information, visit:

American Bar Association and National Bar Association study:

National Center for Juvenile Justice:

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention:

PACE Center for Girls: