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Who is the typical female delinquent? What causes her to get into trouble? What happens to her if she is caught? These are questions that few members of the general public could answer quickly. By contrast, almost every citizen can talk about delinquency, by which they generally mean male delinquency, and can even generate some fairly specific complaints about, for example, the failure of the juvenile justice system to deal with such problems as the alarming increase in the rate of serious juvenile crime and the fact that the juvenile courts are too lenient on juveniles found guilty of these offenses.
This situation should come as no surprise since even the academic study of delinquent behavior has, for all intents and purposes, been the study of male delinquency. The delinquent is a rogue male stated by Albert Cohen in his influential book on gang delinquency. A decade later, Travis Hirschi, with his equally important book entitled The Causes of Delinquency, regulated women and suggested in a somewhat apologetic manner that in analysis that follows, the non-Negro becomes white, and the girls disappear.
This pattern of neglect is not all that unusual. All areas of social inquiry have been notoriously gender blind. What is perhaps less well understood is that theories developed to describe the misbehavior of working-class male youth fail to capture the full concept of delinquency in America; and are inadequate when it comes to explaining female misbehavior and official reactions to girls deviance.
Specifically, delinquent behavior involves a range of activities far broader than those committed by the stereotypical street gang. Also, many more young people than the visibly group of troublemakers that exist on every intermediate and high school campus commit some sort of juvenile offense and many of these youth have brushes with the law. One study revealed that 33% of all the boys and 14% of the girls born in 1958 had at least one contact with the police before reaching their eighteenth birthday. Indeed, some forms of serious delinquent behavior such as drug and alcohol abuse, are far more frequent than the stereotypical delinquent behavior of gang fighting and vandalism and appear to cut across class and gender lines.
Studies that take from youth themselves the volume of their delinquent behavior consistently suggests that large numbers of adolescents engage in at least some form of misbehavior that could result in their arrest. As a consequence, it is largely trivial misconduct, rather than the commission of serious crime, that shapes the actual nature of juvenile delinquency. One national study of youth aged 15-21, for example, noted that only 5% reported involvement in a serious assault, and only 6% reported having participated in a gang fight. In contrast, 81% admitted to having used alcohol, 44% admitted to having used marijuana, 37% admitted to having been publicly drunk, 42% admitted to having skipped classes, 44% admitted having sexual intercourse, and 15% admitted to having stolen from their families.
Indeed, an important point to understand about the nature of delinquency, and particularly female delinquency, is that youth can be taken into custody for both criminal acts and a wide variety of what are called status offenses. These offenses allow for the arrest of youth for a wide range of behaviors that are violations of parental authority: running away from home, being a person in need of supervision, being incorrigible, beyond control, truant, in need of care and protection, and so on. Juvenile delinquents, then, are youths arrested for either criminal or non-criminal status offenses.
Looking at girls who find their way into juvenile court populations, it is apparent that status offenses continue to play an important role in the character of girls official delinquency. In total, 34% of the girls, but only 12% of the boys, were referred in court in 1983 for these offenses. Stating these figures, while males comprised 81% of all delinquency referrals, females constituted 46% of all status offenders in court. And fifteen years earlier, about half of the girls and about 20% of the boys were referred to court for these offenses. This data seems to signal a decrease in female status offense referrals, but not a dramatic increase as some may have believed.
For some time statistics showing large numbers of girls arrested and referred for status offenses were taken to be representative of the different types of male and female delinquency. However, self-reported studies of male and female delinquency do not reflect the dramatic differences in misbehavior found in official statistics. It appears that girls charged with these non-criminal status offenses have been and continue to be significantly over-represented in court population.
Teilmann and Landry (1981) compared girls contribution to arrests for runaway and incorrigibility with girls self-reports of these two activities, and found a 10.4% overrepresentation of females among those arrested for runaway and a 30.9% overrepresentation in arrests for incorrigibility. This data finds that girls are arrested for status offenses at a higher rate than boys, when contrasted to their self-reported delinquency rates. Similarly, a national youth survey in 1982 found that there was no evidence of greater female involvement, compared to males, in any category of delinquent behavior.
Canter s national data on the extensiveness of girls self-reported delinquency and comparing these figures to official arrests of girls shows that girls are underrepresented in every arrest category with the exception of status offenses and larceny theft. These findings strongly suggest that official practices tend to exaggerate the role played by status offenses in girls delinquency.
The Delinquency Theory, being that it has virtually ignored female delinquency, fails to pursue anomalies that have been found in earlier studies that have examined gender differences in delinquent behavior. But also, some theories have ignored status offenses as well.
Specifically, it is incorrect to assume that because girls are charged with less serious crimes, they actually have few problems and are treated gently when they are drawn into the juvenile justice system. The focus on disadvantaged males in public settings has meant that girls victimization and the relationship between that experience and girls crime has been systematically ignored. Also missed is the central role-played in the juvenile justice system in the sexualization of girls survival strategies.
Finally, it is suggested that the official actions of the juvenile justice system should be understood as major forces in girls oppression as they have been historically served to reinforce the obedience of all young women to demands of patriarchal authority no matter how abusive and arbitrary.
With the concept of female gangs, Thrasher mentions two factors he felt accounted for the lower number of girl gangs:
First, the social patterns for the behavior of girls, powerfully backed by the great weight of tradition and custom, are contrary to the gang and its activities; and secondly, girls, even in urban disorganized areas, are much more closely supervised and guarded than boys and usually well incorporated into the family groups or some other social structure.
On a different note, the movement to establish separate institutions for youthful offenders was part of the larger Progressive Movement, which was keenly concerned about prostitution and other social evils. Child-saving was also a celebration of women s domesticity, though ironically women were influential in the movement.
Concerned with female victimization and distrustful of male sexuality, noted leaders such Susan B. Anthony found common causes with the social purist around issues as opposing the regulation of prostitution and raising the age of consent. But girls were the losers in this reform movement.
Studies of early family court activity revealed that virtually all the girls who appeared in these courts were charged for immortality or waywardness. To the point the sanctions for such misbehavior were extremely severe. For example, in Chicago (where the first family court was founded), one-half of the girl delinquents, but only one-fifth of the boy delinquents, were sent to reformatories between 1899-1909. In Milwaukee, twice as many girls as boys were committed to training schools; and in Memphis females were twice as likely as males to be committed to training schools.
Not surprisingly, a large number of girls reformatories and training schools were established during this period as places of rescue and reform. Twenty-three facilities were opened during 1919-1920, and these institutions did much to set the tone of official response to female delinquency. These institutions isolated women from all contact with males concerned with their precocious sexuality. And the intention of this was to hold girls until a marriageable age and to occupy them in domestic pursuits during their incarcerations.
A study conducted in the early 1970 s in a Connecticut training school revealed large numbers of girls incarcerated for their own protection. One judge explained, Why most of the girls I commit are for status offenses. I figure if a girl is about to get pregnant, we ll keep her until she s sixteen and then ADC (Aid to Dependent Children) will pick her up.
More evidence of official concern with adolescent sexual misconduct is considered in Linda Hancock s content analysis. She notes that 40% of the referrals to court in Australia made specific mention of sexual and moral conduct compared to only 5% of the referrals of boys. These kinds of results suggest that youthful female misbehavior has traditionally been subject to surveillance for evidence of sexual misconduct.
A sample survey of girls in the juvenile justice system in Wisconsin revealed that 79% had been subjected to physical abuse that resulted in some form of injury, and 32% had been sexually abused by parents or other persons who were closely connected to their families. 50% also had been sexually assaulted (raped or forced to participate in sexual acts). A study in Arizona also found that youths charged with running away, truancy, or listed as missing persons were victims of incest.
Inevitably, many young women are running away from sexual victimization at home, and once on the streets, are forced into crime in order to survive. It has also been shown through interviews with runaways that these girls do not have an attachment to their delinquent activities, and interestingly enough many are angry about being labeled delinquent even though they engaged in illegal acts.
In addition, the fact that young girls are defined as sexually desirable than their older sisters due to the double standard of aging means that their lives on the streets take on a unique shape-one shaped by patriarchal values. It is no accident that girls on the run from abusive homes, or on the streets because of profound poverty, get involved in criminal activities that exploit their sexual object status.
In conclusion, many studies have been researched in an attempt to find the reasons for female delinquency. Although recent decades have shown changing crime trends amongst women, the fact remains that females continue to be the victims of violence and sexual abuse. American society has defined as desirable youth, physically perfect women, which unfortunately also means that the criminal subculture views them from this perspective as well. But unlike males, females victimization and their response to it is specifically shaped by their status as females, and it is still evident today.
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