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This is the last of my four part blog series on girls and juvenile justice. Part I provided an overview of the most recent information, Part II discussed the prevalence of histories of sexual abuse among justice-involved girls, Part III dealt with runaways, and this blog will conclude with the most common offense committed by girls.

The most common category of offenses that girls are arrested for is that of larceny-theft. The most common example within this category is shoplifting. It should not be too surprising that shoplifting is so common. For teenagers, going shopping (including hanging out at a shopping mall) is a very common activity. It is normal and healthy for adolescents to want to be with their peers. By the time a child has reached puberty, the peer group has already begun to take over in terms of influencing behavior. In fact, teenagers in the United States spend more time each day talking with friends than any other activity, and high school students spend more time with their friends than with their parents. A recent survey found that teens are more likely to spend money on clothes, followed by eating out, cars, movies and cell phones. They spend a considerable amount of time in shopping malls. In fact, this survey found that they visit malls more frequently than any other age group averaging once per week, and also spend the most time per visit.” Studies have found that this behavior stems in part from loneliness and the need to associate with friends. A web site inLos Angeles is devoted to the encouragement of teenage shopping, especially for girls. Same-sex cliques are extremely popular among youth, and the bulk of delinquency occurs within these groups. Indeed, peer influences have long been recognized as a factor in delinquency causation.

The annual cost to retailers has been estimated to be as high as $13 billion. A 2008 report noted that with there has been a significant rise in arrests for shoplifting because of the poor economy.

A book on the history of shoplifting noted that up until the 1920s shoplifting was mostly a male activity. Then it shifted to a mostly female activity, in part because of the significant increase in women shoppers. However, several self-report studies have shown little or no difference in shoplifting between girls and boys and a few show boys with slightly higher rates. A survey of adolescents inMontana found that males were more likely than females to engage in shoplifting. A European study found that males were more likely to shoplift than girls.

Explanations of male and female shoplifting have generally been simplistic and gender biased. A common explanation for female shoplifting is that it is a result of subconscious motivations (kleptomania), depression (for example, resulting from the menopause) or poverty (for example, mothers on welfare who steal food).” A common explanation of male shoplifting is that it results from peer group pressure” and excitement and thrills.” Another explanation is that shoplifting among girls is explained as outlets for sexual frustration.” Also girls’ shoplifting has been explained as the result of being led astray,” or being sick” or evil,” while shoplifting by males is usually seen as rational” and based upon economic considerations. Such explanations never seem to examine the economic motivation or the fact that money might be equally a motivating factor for women as for men. The possibility that girls are acting rational is rarely explored. 

One consideration that rarely appears in work on shoplifting is that young people, especially girls, may be inordinately sensitive to the consumer culture: they steal things they feel they need, or indeed may actually need but cannot afford. Women — young and old — are the targets of enormously expensive advertising campaigns for a vast array of personal products. They also constitute a large proportion of those who shop, spend more time doing it as a pastime, and consequently are exposed to greater temptation. A recent poll found that women spend almost 400 hours per year shopping, while another survey found that women spend about 8 years of their life shopping.

Participation in the teen consumer subculture is costly, and if a young woman cannot afford participation, she is likely to steal her way in. It is no surprise, then, that girls are more likely than boys to shoplift cosmetics and clothes. Boys, in contrast, are much more likely to steal electronic items. In short, the teenage subculture may be particularly hard on girls from poor families. They are bombarded daily with the message that they are acceptable only if they look a particular way, yet they do not have the money necessary to purchase the look.”

It is also important to note how shoplifting often occurs within the context of serious life problems among some girls. For instance, a study of 38 drug-addicted women found a direct link between early life trauma and later criminal activities, including shoplifting and prostitution. Most of the women in this study were African American and grew up in some of the worst kinds of circumstances imaginable in the inner cities of Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. Their early lives were marked by constant abuse, both physical and sexual (many victimized by alcoholic parents), and they began to engage in drug use at an early age and eventually were drawn into the world of crime, as shoplifters and sex workers.” Most started drinking and using drugs at around the age of 12 or 13 and some even younger. 

In general, shoplifting by girls must be placed within the context of girls’ lives in a youth and consumer oriented culture. Here the drawbacks of not having money are evident, and for girls, as we shall see in subsequent chapters, there are few avenues to teenage success. Shoplifting, then, is a social cost attributable to the bombarding of young people with images of looks and goods attainable only with money many of them do not have.