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Unequal Treatment in Juvenile Courts

Critics say girl offenders languish in system designed for, and overwhelmed by, boys

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.

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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."

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"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. But only 6 percent are specially designed for females.

Girls Inc. is pushing for more single-sex treatment programs for girls. "There just isn't enough being done for the girls," Ms. Montoya says. "You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach to these programs."

From the beginning, however, the juvenile-court system was designed for males. "The image that has always haunted the juvenile-justice system is that of the delinquent boy," Ms. Chesney-Lind says. "But the exclusive preoccupation with the delinquent boy is not justified, given the number of girls in the system."

And those numbers are growing. Between 1989 and '93, arrests of girls rose by 23 percent, double the increase for boys, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Arrests of young females for violent crimes increased by 125 percent from '85 to '94. The increase for boys during the same period was 67 percent.

Despite these statistics, "we've seen very little movement in funding for girls' programs," Chesney-Lind says. "Girls have problems that need to be addressed."

"For many girls, the juvenile-justice system is their last, best hope for rehabilitation," says Isabel Carter Stewart, executive director of Girls Inc. "We must make it responsive to their needs."

Responding to need

One way to do that is by addressing the common factors that often bring girls into the system, she argues. For example, the report found that up to 73 percent of young women in the juvenile courts have been victims of physical or sexual abuse. Yet there are relatively few programs focusing on this issue, Ms. Stewart says.

Such concerns are "well-founded," Braun says. But it's important to keep the problem in perspective, he adds.

"There has been a great deal of ground gained in the past 20 years," he says. "It wasn't that long ago when courts were regularly putting runaways in jails with adult criminals."

On the federal level, there is already a push to address gender bias in the juvenile-justice system. In 1992, amendments to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act provided challenge grant funding to states prohibiting gender bias in the treatment of juvenile offenders. So far, 23 states have taken advantage of the funding.

"There are sets of conversations going on now around the country about girls in juvenile justice," Chesney-Lind says. "Before, it had always been an unasked question."

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