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Part I: Trends in girls' crime

Meda Chesney-Lind and I are currently updating our book Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice (to be published by Wiley-Blackwell at the end of this year) and in this blog I want to report some updated information about recent trends in the offenses girls commit.

A total of 285,243 arrests of girls occurred in 2011 (latest figures available) and as usual the arrests of males outnumber female arrests by a ratio of 2.4:1.  This ratio has been consistent for the past 30 years or more.

Boys are still far more likely than girls to be arrested for violent crimes and serious property offenses. The male-to-female ratio for violent index crimes (homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault) is about 5:1, and the ratio for the most serious index property crimes (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and arson) is almost 2:1. Males are also far more likely to be arrested for such offenses as possession of stolen property, vandalism, weapons offenses, and “other assaults.” Because of these sorts of arrest patterns, serious violent and property offenses have traditionally been considered “masculine” offenses.

Misplaced media hype and the demonization of young girls of color

Contrary to news media accounts, there is no evidence that girls have become more violent. Arrest rates for girls for aggravated assault declined by 35% between 2001 and 2011. For the offense “other assaults,” girls’ arrest rates barely changed (down 7.5%) during the first decade of the current century, after showing an increase in the previous decade. It should be emphasized that largest increases for “violent” crime have been for relatively minor assaults and boys continue to be in the lead. In fact, while in 2001 arrests for serious violent crimes (e.g., homicide, robbery and aggravated assault constituted 3.1% of all girls’ arrests (compared to 5% of all boys’ arrests), in 2011 that percentage had dropped to just 2.6% (for boys it went up to 5.1%).

Detailed studies by Darrell Steffensmeier and his colleagues covering the years 1980 through 2003 found that women and girls did not become more violent and any increase in violence among women and girls is mostly a social construction and not a real increase in actual criminality, largely stemming from sensational media accounts of a few rare violent crimes by girls (including some fighting scenes appearing on You Tube).

Law-abiding behavior on the part of at least some boys and men is taken as a sign of character, but when women avoid crime and violence, it is often considered an expression of weakness.  The other side of this equation is that if girls engage in even minor forms of violence, they are somehow more vicious than their male counterparts. In this fashion, the construction of an artificial, passive femininity lays the foundation for the demonization of young girls of color, as has been the case in the media treatment of girl gang members. Also, as noted by Meda Chesney-Lind and Katherine Irwin in their book Beyond Bad Girls: Gender, Violence and Hype from the media we often get the interpretation that when there are increases in male violence the response is something like “so what else is new?” but when there’s an increase in girls’ violence something fundamental is wrong or there is a “new breed” of “violent women” roaming the streets and threatening the social order.

Running away is no longer counted by law enforcement

What is one of the most interesting developments is that as of the 2010 FBI Uniform Crime Reports runaway arrests are no longer counted.  Historically girls have been more likely than boys to be arrested for running away (even though self-report studies consistently show little or no gender differences of running away), an offense that usually constitutes between 10 and 20 percent. We have attempted to find the reasons behind such a change (no reason was given in the report).  Through two contacts within the FBI we learned that the decision was based upon requests by several law enforcement agencies around the country that these arrests not be counted because not every jurisdiction formally arrests juveniles for running away and thus the annual report would not have given a clear picture of how many juveniles were arrested for this offense. One of our contacts said the following in an e-mail:

In response to your question, the decision to cease collecting statistics on runaways was a result of our law enforcement contributors requesting the offense to be eliminated.  Law enforcement agencies can continue to report the arrest statistic but the FBI will no longer publish the arrest category. The FBI's UCR Program cannot dictate state/local laws.  It was only for law enforcement agencies participating in the UCR Program that it is no longer necessary to submit the data (to the FBI).

Yet plenty of juveniles appear in juvenile and family courts on charges of running away (constituting around 18,000 cases or 12% of all status offenders in 2010).  In most cases, girls who run away have been the victims of sexual abuse, which is typically the reason they run away in the first place. Recent studies have shown that between 70 and 80 percent of sexual abuse cases involve girls. Among the effects of sexual abuse include suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a much higher incidence of suicide attempts, abnormal brain development, poor school performance and dropping out, aggression and drug and alcohol problems. Unfortunately, despite greater national awareness of this problem, treatment is not readily available.

Next Tuesday, Part II of this series will discuss in more depth the correlation between histories of sexual abuse and justice-involvement among girls.

Keywords: crime trends, girls, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Social Justice, Juvenile Justice

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