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All Ellas: girls locked up.

IF YOU GO TO THE WEB SITE of the Florida State Department of Corrections (DOC), you will find a color photo of Jessica Robinson, a thirteen-year-old at the time of her offense. She went from the streets to Florida adult prison with no time in juvenile corrections. (1) (Her criminal history is available on the web page.) Like most of the 465 other children incarcerated in adult Florida prisons, she was arrested with older teens and adults, she did not have a weapon, and she intended to commit a property crime but was convicted of a capital felony--kidnapping. Her release date is June 15, 2006. (2) It seems a travesty of every fundamental principle of juvenile justice to have her photo, name, and record available for anyone to peruse. I imagine the redoubtable women of Hull House--Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley, and Jane Addams--looking at her electronic image; I contemplate Ida Barnett Wells, one of the first probation officers at the world's first juvenile court in Chicago, noting as she scrolls down her computer screen that more than half of the girls locked up are African American in 2000; I picture Judge Mary Bartelme, who invented and presided over the first Girl's Court, identifying the massive prison industry in which girls remain marginalized a century later. (3)

The juxtaposition of this naked trafficking of the photos of locked-up children with the persistent invisibility of girls behind bars is startling. Because girls in custody constitute only 15 percent of the incarcerated juvenile population, they are perceived as "difficult juveniles," degendered, and an irritating subset of a male system. Although girls account for 25 percent of youth arrests, they do not receive the resources or attention of that share.

Girls caught in the justice system have been an addendum to feminist concerns and a footnote within child advocacy. Girls were forgotten during the Second Wave of feminism in the 1970s-1980s. This is both a disturbing myopia, and yet understandable because the problems confronting adult women were themselves overwhelming. One looks in vain for information, analysis, and championing of girls in public systems, young women of color, or the economically marginalized in those decades. Similarly, most vigorous child advocacy during that period ignored gender, but not poverty or race.

This is not simply a historical quibble. When we better synthesize the interplay and interconnected analyses of girls and of women, effective use can be made of the outstanding research on imprisoned women for the benefit of incarcerated girls, and vice versa. Some of the girls who are locked up, for example, are among the 1.3 million children under eighteen whose mothers are or were under correctional supervision. (4) Knowing that only 39 percent of the women sentenced to prison in Illinois have a high school diploma or a GED has profound implications for policy involving girls-but only should we choose to be knowledgeable in both worlds.

Until the last decade, when scholars and activists uncovered the vivid particularity and anguish of incarcerated girls, it was indifference, silence, and the smug certainty of the need for firm social control of "wayward girls" that characterized society's response toward delinquent girls. (5) "Out of sight/out of mind" has the dreary repetitive reality of extreme institutional neglect and abuse for girls. Despite the fact that the punishment of incarceration is shrouded by claims of "protection," or "for her own good," or the modern, technical "assessment" and "services," care is not what most girls get when they are deprived of their liberty.

Notably absent from the record of a century of incarcerating girls has been the voices of girls themselves. The experience of incarceration for adolescent girls-manifest in poetry, the arts, and in organized mobilizations to transform conditions of confinement-is now being articulated loud and clear by young women who have experienced the strip searches, the isolation, the separation from children and family, the stereotyping, and the brutal social control. (6) They defy the paternalistic, racist, and patronizing generalizations. They speak for themselves.

Two girls' deaths in prison in the last decade illustrate texture of life behind bars for most of the population of incarcerated female delinquents. (7) However, these are obviously the extreme cases.

Gina Score was a fourteen-year-old girl who collapsed and died during a forced run at a girl's boot camp program at the State Training School in Plankinton, South Dakota, in 1999. Her death was attributed to "natural causes" by both the DOC officials and the governor's office, but an investigation revealed that she had been left lying on the track in the blazing sun for three hours as juvenile correctional officers stood by without helping her, claiming that she was faking. Parents of incarcerated children traveled from across the state to meet with Youth Law Center (YLC) attorneys and, in defiance of Governor Bill Janklow's dismissal of them as "rotten parents," formed an organization to advocate for their children, "Parents Who Care Coalition."

A subsequent lawsuit by the YLC revealed that fourteen-year-old girls were placed in four-point restraints for misbehaving, spread-eagled, with their clothes cut off by male guards. They were forced on two- to four-mile runs, handcuffed and shackled, for acting out. Girls were molested by guards at the Plankinton facility. Mentally ill children were locked in isolation cells for as many as twenty-three hours per day, sometimes for months at a time. Mail was read and censored and education was inadequate. South Dakota settled the lawsuit and after a year of relative compliance closed the training school in December 2001.

Mystie Kreimer, a fifteen-year-old Iowa "resident" of a for-profit congregate care facility, Forest Ridge, was placed in an institution because she had a history of substance abuse and "sexual adventuring." Mystie entered the private facility weighing 140 pounds; when she died in a helicopter, en route to a Sioux Falls hospital, she weighed 100 pounds. Her mother's plea to have her daughter hospitalized for leg and chest pains was rejected by the institution that claimed she was not "sick enough to warrant that kind of medical attention." The autopsy report indicated that Mystie died of a massive blood clot in her lung. Forest Ridge, one of the institutions operated by Youth Services International (YSI) in ten states, had been investigated by the Iowa Department of Human Services for abuse by inexperienced youth workers. (8)

In the past decade, four major shifts took place involving girls in prison: (1) The incarceration of girls in detention and corrections spiked. (2) Girls' arrests for assault and aggravated assault or battery skyrocketed. (3) Race, particularly being African American, characterized girls' arrests and incarceration. (4) Private institutions for girls, in the form of private juvenile correctional facilities, mental health treatment facilities, and hospitals, boomed. This article will examine those four developments-none good for girls, public safety, or social justice-by analyzing the who, why, where, and what of imprisoning girls. A final look at what girls need for their safety, care, and developmental well-being will identify some successes and the pressing need for participation by girls themselves.


In 1999, a century after the first juvenile court opened for busines, 670,800 girls were arrested. This represented an 83 percent increase over the previous decade. The dramatic increase in the arrest of girls was simultaneous with a nine-year drop in youth crime. Arrest and incarceration are different matters, yet the institutionalized confinement of girls has also escalated, despite the lesser severity of girls' offending.

Ominously, the use of detention (pretrial incarceration) for girls increased 65 percent, as compared to 30 percent for boys, in the decade 1988-1997. (9) Girls are detained for far less serious offenses than boys. If the purposes of detention are twofold-to protect the public and the child herself, from likely violence, and to ensure reappearance at trial-then girls are being wrongfully detained in wholesale manner. Girls are locked up (not just arrested) for trivial offenses-such as public order (loitering, curfew), status offenses (truancy, runaway, incorrigibility), larceny theft (shoplifting), traffic offenses, drug offenses, and technical violations of probation and parole. Girls constituted about 6.7 percent of the juveniles held in adult jails in 1994, a grave custodial option. (10)

But most ominously, the use of court-ordered incarceration (post-conviction) for girls in residential facilities increased 105 percent. (11) These include state juvenile correctional institutions, youth residential or "training" schools, reformatories, and homes, and increasing numbers of children actually incarcerated in adult prisons, some as young as thirteen years of age. (12) More than half of the juvenile prisons are dangerous and overcrowded institutions far from home, with high staff turnover, crisis-only medical and mental health programs, reduced physical exercise and education, and reliance on isolation, restraints, and pepper spray or psychotropic drugs. (13) In the past decade, lawsuits in places as disparate as Maryland, Georgia, South Dakota, and Louisiana revealed juvenile prison facilities with medieval, snake pit conditions for adolescents: lengthy confinement in tiny, dirty rooms; children chained to walls, floors, and bedposts; youth left naked on concrete floors; and/or untrained and physically aggressive staff. (14) These youngsters, girls and boys both, are overwhelmingly imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. The girls are imprisoned for truancy, running away, shoplifting, and curfew violations-status offenses and minor offenses that are then "bootstrapped" or elevated into crimes. The girls have suffered massive trauma and have major health needs before their arrests. One result of their incarceration is increased injuries, escapes, and suicide attempts. (15)

Being deprived of one's liberty is a severe punishment in any event. For the vast majority of girls who are incarcerated, being confined in these prisons can increase their disruptive or self-destructive behaviors, prepare them for a future life of obedience and control, and further drive them into severe mental illness or harmful coping mechanisms. Put simply, most girls, almost all girls, should not be locked up.

We know three dramatic facts about the girls who are being detained and incarcerated. First, they have been shockingly victimized by violence before their experience with juvenile justice. Second, they are increasingly girls of color. Third, they are astonishingly resilient.

Girls Experienced Violent Attacks. Although girls who are confined are perceived as violent, they have in fact been victims of or witnesses to an extraordinary measure of violence: community violence, domestic violence and wife-beating, girl-hating, homophobia, and sexual harassment. There is growing evidence that these experiences impact girls more and differently than boys. (16)

Girls in confinement have experienced traumatic physical or sexual abuse in astounding numbers. (17) But knowledge of these numbing facts has tended to further distance or paralyze those responsible for their care or create a sense that these girls are "damaged goods," incapable of healing or recovery.

A large majority of incarcerated girls (61.2 percent) have experienced physical abuse, and nearly half of them were abused more than ten times. Similarly, the majority of girls who are confined experienced sexual abuse (54.3 percent) beginning at nine years of age or younger, and a third reported that it happened three to twenty times. (18) A California study on incarcerated girls reported that 92 percent of the girls said they had been subjected to some form of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. (19) Nearly 50 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (20) Physically and sexually assaulted girls had reported the violent aggression against them to adults, but either nothing changed as a result, or things become worse for them.

An incredible 80.7 percent of locked-up girls report having run away from home. And a study of Canadian runaways found that girls were six times more likely than boys to cite sexual abuse as their reason for running away from home. (21) More than half of the incarcerated girls said they had attempted suicide. Drug use and prior arrests are part of the pattern. Child sexual assault, desperate running away, and drugs are correlated with adolescent prostitution, a setting with further subsequent violence. Depression is common but rarely diagnosed; sadness, isolation, and the sense of loss that comes from childhood trauma remain internalized. Researchers found that nearly three-quarters of the girls detained at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago met diagnostic criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders; almost 20 percent of detained girls met the criteria for a major depressive episode. (22) Other girls, responding to their violent victimization with aggression, may be labeled "oppositional" or "disruptive" without any corresponding investigation into the origins of their behavior. (23) Either path-withdrawal and depression or resistance to control-may be reasonable coping responses to the violations that girls experienced, particularly in a world of adult indifference or harshness. As discussed later, both the irritability that accompanies depression in adolescent girls and the aggression that may be a common defense against helplessness will contribute to the ease with which these girls may be criminalized, excluded from school, and marginalized within juvenile justice. In particular, the fact that a principal coping response for girls is running away from home has failed to sound adult alarm bells or develop resources to promote recovery. Instead, the running away is itself criminalized and becomes a major pathway for these girls into prison.

It is also clear that institutional responses increasingly lead girls to prison. Thus zero tolerance policies that mandate school arrest and expulsion, or hospital emergency room practices that mandate a police call in cases of drug overdose can export girls directly to juvenile detention. Girls who have been abused or neglected and enter the foster care system are at far greater risk of entering the juvenile justice system. (24) Girls who have been in the child protection system in Chicago (Cook County), for example, are four times more likely than the general population to have a delinquency petition filed against them (compared to twice as likely for males). (25)

It makes me cringe to describe girls (or children) within any public system as principally victims or by their negative characteristics. This pathologizing does a profound injustice to these children and undermines our willingness to seriously address their needs. First, it erases their essential humanness. Second, it makes them appear as pathetic or massively injured rather than as complex and coping people. Third, it ignores their other passions, qualities, and talents-presenting a skewered and distorted image. Girls in child welfare systems, within schools, in health and mental health facilities, homeless shelters, locked hospital psychiatric units, and juvenile justice institutions have been assessed and reassessed. They are no strangers to labels or to dismissive descriptors: single teen parents or children from single parents, promiscuous, drug abusing, failing in school, homeless, unskilled, illiterate, hostile, withdrawn, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavior disorder, suicidal, and so forth. These negative, racially coded characteristics trump other, equally valuable, information: musical, athletic, brave, resourceful, communicative, caring, mechanical, empathetic, inquiring, imaginative, truthful, surviving.

Fear and hatred of homosexuality and the consequent isolation and silence has had a profound impact on girls who may be lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or simply questioning. The silence and adult complicity with violent attacks against lesbian girls is only recently being documented, such as the Human Rights Watch report on school violence. (26) These young women have been subjected to harsh discrimination, and little is documented about their experience once in the juvenile justice system. All who have worked in juvenile detention or correctional facilities know that homophobia is rampant and the policing of girls' facilities for the slightest physical affection, contact, or sexual relationships is relentless. Openly lesbian girls are subject to myriad forms of discrimination and punishment while incarcerated.

Yet for all my resistance to describing these girls as victimized, it is obvious that the problems caused by their childhood violent victimization by adults--principally physical and sexual assault, sexual harassment, and homophobia--has influenced and impacted their health and development and limited their choices. PTSD and other severe physical or mental health disorders are common among incarcerated girls and frequently undiagnosed. (27) In these ways, their gender shapes their possibilities. Indeed, if you were a young girl repeatedly sexually assaulted, with little or no protection, your self-view would not be one of self-hate but self-survival.

When there is a lack of understanding and empathy, their pathway from injurious harm to incarceration proceeds in silence. Indeed incarcerated girls have been called the "forgotten few." (28)

The Color of Justice for Girls. Gender and racial disparity overlap and intersect, putting girls of color into secure detention and correctional facilities at far greater proportions. African American girls are almost half of those in public detention centers, and Latinas are about 13 percent. As the incarceration of girls skyrocketed 65 percent between 1988 and 1997, the increase for African American girls was 123 percent whereas that for white girls was 41 percent. (29) This inequitable, rapid escalation of imprisoning girls of color is reflected also in court dispositions: seven of every ten cases involving white girls are dismissed, compared with three of every ten cases for African American girls. (30)

It is impossible to look afresh at the juvenile justice system and not notice that there are two systems of justice: one private and one public. The private system operates for girls whose families have resources. These girls are less likely to be reported into the public systems, for they have private health care, live in private housing, attend private or parochial schools, and have child care or after-school activities. When they get into trouble with the law (and self-report evidence indicates that these girls of privilege are involved with illegal drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, and status offenses at the same or higher rates as their poorer sisters), they are likely to be diverted away from juvenile court. (31) They may be incarcerated in private hospitals or facilities, enrolled in private boarding or military schools, or sent out of state to live with relatives. The girls whose families are without resources, however, are likely to be arrested, referred to juvenile court, expelled from school, and subject to the public system of accountability and punishment.

Increasingly during the past two decades, white girls are disappearing from public correctional facilities and reappearing in private institutions. Put the other way, public institutions that incarcerate girls (detention centers, training schools, correctional institutions, reformatories) have been filling up with girls of color as they have become overcrowded, understaffed, and shredded of programmatic options. And these children of color are confined--overwhelmingly--for nonviolent offenses.

The Resilience of Imprisoned Girls. Adults who work with incarcerated girls are known to complain bitterly about how difficult and unsatisfying it is to work with adolescent females. (32) The girls, however, are filled with bitter critiques of those adults around them: their arbitrary enforcement of rules, their aggressive practices of body searches, their obsession with sexual behavior behind bars, and their hypocrisy. When offered vehicles of expression, incarcerated girls are creative and profound.

More significantly, the report by incarcerated girls that their efforts to tell adults of their victimization and violent abuse resulted in no improvement or even greater harm means that the girls have learned from their gendered experience that they must rely on themselves and their peers. Their efforts to remove themselves from harm's way may lead to running away, to shoplifting, or to drug use, but these may be understandable, if flawed, reactions. Additionally, many girls continue to try to develop relationships and consider their social needs. This cognitive choice to struggle to develop and maintain a healthy network can be a key factor in their healing process.


If the arrests of girls have accounted for one-quarter of the total delinquency arrests across a century, why have girls remained invisible and marginalized within juvenile justice? In part, the answer lies in the nature of "offenses" for which girls are arrested and incarcerated--more minor behavior than boys.

Status Offenses, Public Disorder, and Shoplifting. Girls enter juvenile justice largely for shoplifting (larceny-theft), status offenses, as runaways, curfew violators, and for "other offenses." (33) This has remained constant for the past twenty-five years.

Status offenses are those violations of parental authority, behaviors that would not be criminal if committed by an adult, such as curfew violations, incorrigibility, running away, truancy, ungovernability, person in need of supervision, or a minor in need of care and protection. Status offenses accounted for 23 percent of all girls' arrests in 1994, compared to 8.6 percent for boys. Another one-quarter of the arrests of girls are for shoplifting. Virtually half of all arrests of girls are thus for status offenses or shoplifting. The arrests of girls for running away increased 18 percent and 83.1 percent for curfew violations between 1985 and 1994. Thus, in large part girls come to the attention of police, prosecutors, and judges for noncriminal behavior and relatively minor offenses.

This practice of criminalizing the adolescent behavior of girls has a long history, involving the social control of defiant, sexual, and unruly girls. The public punishment of deviant or "fallen girls" is a principal pillar in the maintenance of patriarchy and the second-class citizenship of females. Girls have been singled out for sexual activity and their allied behaviors (curfew, incorrigibility, ungovernability) and referred to criminal justice authorities by distraught parents, school personnel, medical practitioners, and social service agencies for a hundred years. (34) This is a historical pattern of continued sociopolitical attempts to define "appropriate" and "inappropriate" female behavior, designed to maintain male ideological and economic dominance.

Even when we move from arrests to incarceration, the unequal and biased treatment of girls continues. One-fifth of the girls in public detention centers and training schools are incarcerated for status and public order offenses, compared to less than 3 percent for boys. (35) Girls are confined in public facilities for misdemeanor offenses, property, drug, and "other" delinquency behaviors (these proportions are even higher in private institutions, as explained later in this article). Twice as many girls as boys are confined for violations of probation or parole. Overall, girls are far less likely to be held for violent offenses.

Bootstrapping Girls or Criminalizing Non-Criminal Infractions. The passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974 included provisions to withhold federal financing from states that failed to remove status offenders and other nondelinquents from public detention and correctional facilities (not including, however, private facilities). (36) This deinstitutionalization mandate had enormous impact on girls, because before the law's mandate nearly 75 percent of the girls and 23 percent of the boys incarcerated in juvenile training schools were held for status offenses. (37) After JJDPA, a five-year concerted effort resulted in a 40 percent drop in the incarceration of girls in public detention and correctional institutions. However, entrenched resistance to deinstitutionalization led to the development of new mechanisms (described later) that resulted in a backlash, increasing the incarceration of girls for noncriminal or minor offenses. These techniques, termed "bootstrapping" by Meda Chesney-Lind, once again expanded the confinement of girls.

In 1980, the JJDPA was amended to exclude juvenile violations of a "valid court order" from the deinstitutionalization requirement for status offenders. Judges may issue court orders for status offenders, and the violation of that court order then becomes a delinquency offense. For example, a judge may order a runaway or truant girl to be home by 5:00 PM, to attend school, and to "obey her mother." Any violation of the order--even a technical violation--is a delinquency/"criminal" offense, although the underlying behavior was not "delinquent or criminal." In this way, the child's behavior is "bootstrapped" into an offense for which detention or incarceration is permitted or justified.

In 1992, however, momentary renewal of interest in deinstitutionalization led to congressional hearings and some limitations on this criminalization and incarceration of girls for nondelinquent behavior. The JJDPA reauthorization required that all youth being detained by a "valid court order" must appear before a judge, be made subject to the order, and have full due process rights. The act also required that the juvenile being referred must be assessed and that all dispositions--other than placement in a secure institution--must have been exhausted or found inappropriate. (38) These few limitations were threatened again by the 1994-elected House of Representatives, but reauthorization of JJDPA in 2002 preserved the 1992 judicial requirements.

Nonetheless, in spite of the judicial requirements limiting incarceration under certain circumstances, juvenile court techniques, such as holding girls in criminal contempt or referring them to "secure" mental health facilities, have again escalated the number of girls confined. The expansive use of private institutions and the "voluntary" commitment of girls have subsequently mushroomed.

Violations of Probation or Parole. Twice as many girls as boys are being confined for violations of probation or parole (24 percent for girls, 12 percent for boys). (39) Probation violations are applied disproportionately by gender. The discretionary decision by either a probation officer or a judge to claim that a girl offender has violated the terms of her probation may well be rooted within the vast gender-specific attitudes that lead to greater social control of girls. Minor technical violations of probation by a girl appear to receive more immediate and harsh official responses, whereas for a boy, only rearrest or a serious violation will result in official consequences.

A girl who has shoplifted, been deemed incorrigible, or violated curfew restrictions may be on probation with terms that include being home every evening, not associating with certain friends, or obeying a mother who may be inappropriately or inconsistently disciplining her daughter. It appears to lawyers and advocates that often mothers telephone their daughters' probation officer to report misbehavior, when concerned for their welfare. This type of minor or resolvable family conflict may swiftly result in a probation (or parole) violation determination and immediate incarceration for the girl. And there is good evidence that incarceration at any point in the juvenile/criminal justice continuum contributes to deeper involvement in the system. A girl who is committed to detention is more likely to be adjudicated/convicted, to be incarcerated, to re-offend. (40)

As the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) revealed, the $30,000 a year cost for child incarceration (not including capital costs or court costs) is both harmful to children and costly to taxpayers. Half of that amount could support excellent health care, safe housing, quality education, and consistent adult mentoring for girls who would otherwise be incarcerated. However, we must remember that there are numerous political and economic systems and individuals who benefit from that $30,000 a year per girl fee. Legislators lauding "tough on crime" policies, correctional facilities and administrators, construction and hardware contractors, and communities dependent on those jobs all have an economic interest in maintaining and expanding incarceration policies. But put simply, at the very least, girls who have committed no delinquent or criminal act should never be held in institutions. Never.

Violent Girls? The Uses of Assault and Battery. The arrests of girls for aggravated assault increased 364 percent between 1970 and 1995. In fact, both girls and boys show significant increases in arrests for this crime. Girls' arrest rates for "simple" or "other" assault increased by 343 percent between 1970 and 1995, again with a lesser (215 percent) but high rate for boys. Charges such as assault (threats of physical altercation) or battery (physical altercation) include great behavior variance (such as simple shouting or unpermitted touching), and the addition of "aggravated" to the charge can be due to the nature of the victim (grandmother, teacher, official), to the nature of the incident (such as the presence of a weapon), or to a result of serious physical harm.

There are multiple explanations for this development. One interpretation is that girls have become more violent, particularly girls of color. There is ample discussion of this theory in numerous "reports" and articles about girl gangs, girl fighting, and aggression by girls. (41) Another perspective is that certain behaviors have been relabeled by police, prosecutors, and courts, so that previously nondelinquent family conflicts or schoolyard scuffles are now charged as assault or aggravated assault/battery or aggravated battery. In Chicago's Juvenile Court, for example, the dramatic rise in charges of battery and aggravated battery against girls in the 1990s, appears, in large part, to involve incidents between girls and family members (18 percent), school officials (14 percent), or police (8 percent). Indeed personal assaultive incidents (between girls and someone they knew well) are likely to bring girls to court, accounting for approximately one-third of the charges against girls in Chicago. Of these personal assault and battery cases, two-fifths involve confrontations with family or authority figures, one-fifth involves confrontations with peers, and two-fifths involve clearly violent behavior. (42)

There is pervasive speculation that one of the unintended consequences of domestic violence laws and enforcement has been the increasing arrest of adolescent girls for assault and aggravated assault (or battery). (43) Mandatory arrest policies, intensive training of police about domestic and family violence, and prosecutorial zeal may have led to increasing arrests not only of violent abusers, but also resulted in the criminalizing of family disputes that were once settled by neighbors or family by a "cooling down" period or by referrals to church counselors, social service agencies, or family therapists.

Picture a fourteen-year-old girl, in sharp conflict with her overwhelmed mom. The girl wants to go out with friends or is dating an older boy. The mom blocks the doorway or grabs her daughter by the arms. The girl pushes past or shakes off her mother's hold. The mom calls the police or her daughter's probation officer and the girl is arrested for assault or battery. She is now a "violent" offender. Similar behaviors also occur in school hallways, between students or with a teacher.

More careful scrutiny and analysis is needed for domestic violence laws and policies that may result in relabeling adolescent girls' family conflicts as violent offenses and for harming the very people they were intended to protect, particularly young women of color.

In addition, juvenile arrests are typically arrests of adolescents in groups; thus, many girls are arrested and charged for more serious offenses than warranted by such behavior as being present with their boyfriends during a fight, a robbery, a drug transaction, or gang activities. These accomplice or accountability charges appear as the underlying felony offenses themselves, and conviction and sentencing are not necessarily proportional to the culpability, involvement, or participation of the girl.

The labeling of girls as "violent" or "more violent" is, as Chesney-Lind puts it, a process of social construction. The relabeling could be a consequence of increased police attention to gangs, to domestic and family violence, to traditional notions of "protecting" and policing girls, or to the availability of lethal weapons to adolescents--or some combination. It is likely not a "new breed" of violent females threatening the social order.


The largest growth in locked, secure institutions that incarcerate girls has been private correctional facilities, which have increased about ninety-five times. (44) Due to funding sources, racial and class distinctions, and gender placements, private institutions have experienced explosive growth. By 1995, approximately 65 percent of all juvenile correctional facilities were private.

Girls are more likely than boys to be incarcerated in private institutions, and white girls are far more likely to be incarcerated in private institutions than young women of color. By 1995, females constituted 29 percent of the private correctional facilities' population, but 11 percent of the public institutions. (45) The number of girls confined in private facilities increased by 14 percent. These private facilities are concentrated in special training schools, shelters for status offenders and nondelinquent youth, and group homes or halfway houses. The private facilities, unregulated, often for-profit, and frequently invisible to public or professional scrutiny, are themselves suspect, because girls are also confined in private institutions for far less serious offenses than boys. This reincarceration of girls in private facilities or mental hospitals is one striking systemic response to the lengthy effort to deinstitutionalize girls. One could say that this is the medicalization of girls' survival strategies, the sibling of criminalization techniques. The same girls' behavior might be deemed "oppositional defiant disorder" in a medical context or "disorderly conduct" in a juvenile/criminal context. (46)

Commitments to private facilities take place both through juvenile court adjudication and by "voluntary commitments." These "voluntaries" are parental commitments, with or without the consent of adolescent girls who have not been adjudicated in court. Some of these private facilities are hospitals and mental health facilities, both locked and unlocked. Others are secure correctional institutions. Some are for-profit institutions, which have proliferated. Others are nonprofit entities. But the number of girls held in private facilities has increased dramatically, and the number of facilities has grown.

Taken together, 62 percent of incarcerated girls were in private facilities during a one-day count by the Department of Justice in 1991. (47) The vast majority of these girls are being held for noncriminal offenses, such as running away, incorrigibility, truancy and ungovernability (status offenses), neglect or dependency (child protection), and "voluntary admissions." It is understood that many of the voluntaries are drug- or alcohol-involved girls, girls who are sexually active, and girls who have defied parental or school authorities. There is a further category of girls with serious mental health diagnoses, overlapping with the above categories. Private hospitals advertise and advise institutional care for "troublesome" youth, describing sexual promiscuity, for example, as "self-defeating" or "self-destructive" behavior requiring "immediate acute-care hospitalization as the only reasonable alternative." (48)

The escalating use of residential treatment centers and inpatient hospital psychiatric units for juvenile offenders is another aspect of the incarceration of girls. Again, federal funding streams for construction, professional training, and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement as well as changes in restrictions on insurance payments by third-party payers has resulted in skyrocketing admissions of delinquent and status offender youth and therefore girls in particular, to private psychiatric hospitals. No other type of institution has grown to this degree. (49) These hospitals, along with residential treatment centers, and inpatient substance abuse treatment facilities, have had such explosive growth that they must be included in any serious analysis of the imprisonment of girls. Their adolescent "patients"--largely girls--constitute a vast new body of committed or locked-down youth subject to confinement, control, medication, and punishment, with little public scrutiny or due process mandates.

Although some consider private facilities superior to public residential institutions for girls and there may be real advantages (in confidentiality, length of stay, or education, for example), it is important to note that admissions procedures into private institutions include no procedural protections for the juveniles confined there. Many youth may not suffer from severe or acute mental disorders, but can remain in private psychiatric hospitals twice as long as adults. (50) The vague language of admission, the lack of oversight of programming, the gender bias in treatment, the increasing use of psychotropic medications, and the potential for physical or sexual abuse by staff or peers--always high in all institutions that incarcerate juveniles--together contribute to the need for a heightened degree of scrutiny of private, as well as public, facilities that incarcerate girls.

As long as a decade ago, white girls constituted about 40 percent of those confined in public institutions and about 60 percent of those in private institutions. (51) The racial disparity in commitments to public or private institutions has only increased. Thus the shift to private institutionalization of youth includes a substantial proportion of girls and is distinctly racially disproportionate.


We know that few programs for delinquent girls are designed with gender consciousness, and that most correctional or residential facilities for girls are modeled on institutions for boys, are far from home, and have little to no post-release services. Increasingly, advocates for girls call for "gender-specific programming." This could be useful or dangerous. We must guard against notions of girl-specific programming that reinforces out-dated, narrow notions of femininity. We are concerned about "essentialist" concepts and practices that assume a single racial, cultural, and class understanding of what is appropriate or effective for girls. We are worried that coercive punishments or "gendered" programming harms butch lesbian and/or transgender girls. Therefore, the meaning of gender-specific programming must be robust, inclusive, individualized, and free of gender stereotyping--yet take into account the histories and needs of girls in juvenile justice.

We know the particular medical and health needs required by adolescent girls are rarely accessible to them. There is little recognition of the experiences suffered by these girls before the conduct that brought them into the juvenile justice system. There are few programs that acknowledge the girls as young mothers themselves. (52) And the revictimization of these girls is daily replayed by institutional practices such as strip searches and body cavity examinations, physical restraints, isolation punishments, abusive and ill-trained guards or attendants, inconsistent or inappropriate education, racist and sexist assumptions, and massive staff turnover.

Because the institutional abuse is so pervasive, it seems obvious that the overwhelming majority of incarcerated girls should be released from confinement. Imprisonment is not likely to help and frequently contributes to further harming this population of girls. Despite the power of the forces who currently benefit, it is difficult to imagine that we could not do better with the $25,000-$30,000 per year/per girl by deinstitutionalizing and devoting the resources to community efforts in supported family homes.

Many studies find that girls are treated more leniently than boys or that there is a preference for girls, because fewer girls than boys are stopped, arrested, charged, prosecuted, convicted, or incarcerated. But research suggests growing evidence that girls are treated unequally when charged with similar offenses, and it is clear that girls are arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for far less serious offenses than boys. Without a careful look at the distinctness of prior histories, violent victimization, behavior, parenting, health, and recidivism rates, we cannot speak, plan, divert, deinstitutionalize or effectively work with girls who arrive in juvenile justice systems.

It is essential to consult with and hear from girls who have been imprisoned for status offenses, delinquent conduct, and crimes. These girls are powerful spokeswomen for survival, for identifying what was helpful, for distinguishing effective from counter-productive strategies. Lateefah Simon, herself a formerly incarcerated girl, mother, and organizer, has founded the Center for Young Women's Development to work with, hire, and support incarcerated girls and post-release girls. Wenona Thompson is director of GirlTalk. Valerie Johnson works with girl offenders at the Ella Baker Center in Boston. Their sharp identification of institutional cruelties and rank unfairness and their powerful defiance of harmful stereotyping is a clarion inspiration.

 1. Provide a voice for girls who have been incarcerated at every step
    of the juvenile justice and institutionalization process.
    Ex-offender girls can be part of all discussions, boards of
    directors, task forces, review boards, inspection teams, Juvenile
    Justice Commissions, Juvenile Probation "gender-responsive" efforts,
    and strategic planning efforts. Their expertise from their lived
    experiences must be published, given dignity, and respected.
 2. Directly address the health and educational needs of sexually and
    physically abused girls, outside of detention and correctional
    facilities, before arrest, delinquency, and incarceration begin.
    Learn from both girls and women in prison.
 3. Develop safe housing for girls who cannot safely return to their
    families. Detention and incarceration should never be the first
    response when noncoercive safety, a relationship with a consistent
    adult, and a home is needed
 4. Prohibit all incarceration for status offenses and minor
    misdemeanors and detaining girls to "protect" them. Status offenses
    should probably be abolished, as they have been, effectively, in
    Illinois. Sanctioning, if necessary, should be in the form of
    restorative justice and without criminal record.
 5. Release almost all girls from secure confinement, into
    community-based programs specifically designed for their needs. Here
    we look to lessons from the Oregon Learning Center, for an example
    of intensive work with delinquent girls in specialized foster care
    families, while continuing to work with the girls' biological
    families and planning to return home. (53) Incarceration in
    institutions must be a last resort, for the shortest possible period
    of time, and--when unavoidable--in small, specifically designed
    facilities for identifiable purposes.
 6. Identify, promote, and mandate effective, "gender-specific,
    developmentally sound, culturally sensitive practices with girls"--
    in neighborhood agencies, schools, families, and health care--and
    particularly with parents. Both girls and parents need help to
    address family conflicts without resort to the juvenile or criminal
    justice systems.
 7. Make arrests of girls a last resort, so that the 50 percent or more
    of arrests for status offenses or shoplifting are no longer grounds
    for arrest and prosecution, without additional, serious, and
    irremediable elements.
 8. Set concrete goals to specifically reduce bias and racially
    disproportionate treatment of girls. Programming must be both
    gender-specific and culturally specific to be effective, because
    girls' lives are affected by both. Cultural resources available in
    particular racial/ethnic communities must be identified, respected,
    and tapped. All racial and gender discrimination must be
    scrutinized, monitored, reported on, and directly and immediately
    addressed as unacceptable, not only in words. States, in
    consultation with communities of color, should develop specific
    policies and economic incentives to reduce the number of girls
    arrested and incarcerated with a primary focus on girls of color.
    Adolescents quickly perceive the flagrant unfairness of system bias.
 9. Address gender bias across the board and change policies that result
    in inequitable gender-defined arrests, charging, detention,
    incarceration, violations of probation and parole, and rearrests. It
    is clear that simply noting gender will not do. Marian Daniel,
    director of the Baltimore Female Intervention Team, noted that, "for
    years people assumed that all you have to do to make a program
    designed for boys work for girls is to paint the walls pink and take
    out the urinals." (54) But what evidence identifies effective girls'
    programming? Investigate the benefits and outcomes of innovative
    steps such as the creation of a Girl's Court, Girl's Probation Unit,
    and Girl's Schoolrooms in Chicago--staffed with all female
10. We must better understand violence committed by girls. Most girls
    who are incarcerated are there for nonviolent and trivial offenses.
    But those girls incarcerated for violence offenses also deserve to
    be understood and cared for. Individualized, developmentally
    appropriate, culturally specific, and continuous support is
    required--as it would be for our own children. Blaming girls for
    their failure in inappropriate programs is unjust, hypocritical, and
    untrustworthy. (55)

The late, magnificent Ella Fitzgerald was, it turns out, incarcerated in an upstate New York correctional facility for girls at the age of fourteen. Similar to most incarcerated girls today, she was abused by her mother's boyfriend, ran away from home, and was arrested on the streets of Harlem. She was paroled at the age of fifteen to Chick Webb's band and within a year had become an internationally renowned musician. As the greatest jazz singer of the last century, her expansive obituary in the New York Times included an interview with the superintendent of the reformatory at Hudson. "We didn't know we had the great Ella Fitzgerald," he remarked. And then, reflecting swiftly on what he had said, he added:"Maybe they were all Ellas." So let that be our mantra. Maybe they are all Ellas.


1. See Jessica was also on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in an article by Margaret Talbot, "The Maximum Security Adolescent," sec. 6, 10 Sept. 2000.

2. Paolo G. Annino, "Children in Florida Adult Prisons: A Call for a Moratorium," Florida State University Law Review 28 (Winter 2001): 477-80.

3. "Girls" will be used to include young women between the ages of ten and eighteen years, although the variation in state delinquency law is vast. In Illinois, for example, juvenile court has jurisdiction over girls under seventeen; a seventeen-year-old who is arrested will be tried and incarcerated as an adult. For the majority of states, eighteen remains the age of adulthood for purposes of criminal responsibility, with substantial exceptions for waiver or transfer to adult court.

4. Beth E. Richie, "Challenges Incarcerated Women Face as They Return to Their Communities: Findings from Life History Interviews," Crime and Delinquency 47, no. 3 (2001): 369; Susan M. George and Robert J. Laonde, "Incarcerated Mothers: The Chicago Project on Female Prisoners and Their Children" (comments to the Congressional Black Caucus, 14 Sept. 2002); see also

5. The continuing body of work by Meda Chesney-Lind is pioneering. See, for example, Meda Chesney-Lind and Randall G. Shelton, Girls, Delinquency, and Juvenile Justice, 2nd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: West/Wadsworth, 1998); and Meda Chesney-Lind, The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1997).

6. Lateefah Simon, executive director of the Center for Young Women's Development in San Francisco, exemplifies this determination to develop a powerful force composed of those young women who have been arrested and incarcerated. See also the Chicago organizations GirlTalk, directed by the remarkable Wenona Thompson, and Sisters Organizing for United Leadership (SOUL); Friends of the Island Academy and Youth Force in New York City; the Ella Baker Center in Boston; and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, whose young women initiated the brilliant Books Not Bars campaign.

7. This article will use the word "prison" to include all forms of incarceration for delinquent and criminal girls: reformatories, training schools, juvenile correctional facilities, cottages, boot camps, "homes," private hospitals, treatment programs, and secure institutions (both public and private). Within criminal justice, however, prison generally refers to an adult facility.

8. Heather Szerlag, "Teen's Death Probed at YSI Iowa Center," Youth Today, February 1996, 42, 48, cited in Chesney-Lind, 86. YSI was created by the millionaire who began Jiffy Lube.

9. Annie E. Casey Foundation, JDAI Project (1995), cited in American Bar Association and National Bar Association, Justice by Gender: The Lack of Appropriate Prevention, Diversion, and Treatment Alternatives for Girls in the Justice System (2001), 17-18.

10. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 1994 (Washington, D.C: Department of Justice, 1995), cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 165.

11. Meghan C. Scahill, Female Delinquency Cases, 1997 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000), cited in Barbara Fedders, "More Young Women in the Juvenile Justice System: Girls in Trouble," Guild Practitioner, "America's War on Its Children" 58 (2001): 104.

12. Margaret Talbot, 46; Ronnie Greene and Geoff Dougherty, "Kids in Prison," Miami Herald, 18 Mar. 2001.

13. Patti Puritz and M. A. Scali, Beyond the Walls: Improving Conditions of Confinement for Youth in Custody (Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Center, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1998).

14. See Fox Butterfield, "U.S. and Georgia Deal to Improve Juvenile Prison," New York Times, sec. 1, 22 Mar. 1998; Butterfield, "Profits at Juvenile Prisons Earned at a Chilling Cost," New York Times, sec. A, 15 July 1998; Human Rights Watch, No Minor Matter: Children in Maryland's Jails (New York: Human Rights Watch, Children's Rights Division, 1999).

15. D. G. Parent et al., Conditions of Confinement: Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities (Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1994), cited in Mark Soler, "Examining 'Justice' in the Juvenile System," in Building Violence How America's Rush to Incarcerate Creates More Violence, ed. John P. May and Khalid R. Pitts (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2000), 58.

16. Laurie Schaffner, "Violence and Female Delinquency: Gender Transgressions and Gender Invisibility," Berkeley Women's Law Journal 14 (Spring 1999): 53.

17. Leslie Acoca and K. Dedel, No Place to Hide: Understanding and Meeting the Needs of Girls in the California Juvenile Justice System (San Francisco: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 1998).

18. American Correctional Association, The Female Offender: What Does the Future Hold? (1990), cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 170.

19. Acoca and Dedel.

20. Elizabeth Cauffman et al., "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among Female Juvenile Offenders," Journal of the American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry 37 (November 1998): 11, cited in Kim Brooks et al., The Special Needs of Youth in the Juvenile Justice System: Implications for Effective Practice (Covington, Ky.: Children's Law Center, 2001), 39.

21. Mark-David Janus et al., "Physical Abuse in Canadian Runaway Adolescents," Child Abuse and Neglect 19, no. 4 (1995): 433-47, cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 37.

22. Linda Teplin et al., "Psychiatric Disorders in Youth in Juvenile Detention," Archives of General Psychiatry 59 (December 2002): 1133-43.

23. See Marty Beyers, "Delinquent Girls: A Developmental Perspective," Kentucky Children's Rights Journal 17 (Spring 2001): 20-21, for a thoughtful analysis of girls' development response to violent victimization.

24. M.L. Armstrong, Adolescent Pathways: Exploring the Intersections between Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice, PINS, and Mental Health (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 1998), 18.

25. Kenneth J. Keller, "Juvenile Female Offenders in Cook County: Trends and Outcomes" (paper presented at the American Society of Criminology Annual Meeting, Chicago, 14 Nov. 2002). Seen the other way, delinquent girls are 44 percent more likely than males to have had a child protection petition filed on their behalf. Note that it is unclear to what extent the risk is increased by the underlying abuse or neglect, or from the vicissitudes of the child welfare system.

26. Human Rights Watch, Violence in the Hallways (New York: Human Rights Watch, Children's Rights Division, 2001).

27. Beyers; Acoca and Dedel.

28. I. R. Bergsmann, "The Forgotten Few: Juvenile Female Offenders," Federal Probation 53 (March 1989): 73-78, cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 87.

29. Scahill, cited in Fedders, 104.

30. Justice by Gender, 21.

31. Howard N. Snyder and Melissa Sickmund, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report (Pittsburgh: National Center for Juvenile Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999), 52.

32. Fedders, 104.

33. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States--1993 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1994), 222, cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 12-13.

34. See Anne Meis Kupfner, Reform and Resistance: Gender, Delinquency, and America's First Juvenile Court (New York: Routledge, 2001).

35. Girls Incorporated, Prevention and Parity: Girls in Juvenile Justice (Indianapolis: Girls Incorporated National Resource Center, 1996), 7, cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 80-81.

36. Paul Lerman, "Twentieth Century Developments in America's Institutional Systems for Youth in Trouble," in A Century of Juvenile Justice, ed. Margaret K. Rosenheim et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 86.

37. Ira M. Schwartz, Martha Steketee, and Victoria W. Schneider, "Federal Juvenile Justice Policy and the Incarceration of Girls," Crime and Delinquency 36, no. 4 (1990): 503-20, cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 83.

38. The U.S. House of Representatives, Hearings on the Reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. Hearings before the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Education and Labor, 102nd Congress, 1992, Serial No. 102-125, Washington, D.C., 4983, cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 142-44.

39. Eileen Poe-Yamagata and Jeffrey A. Butts, Female Offenders in the Juvenile Justice System (Pittsburgh: National Center for Juvenile Justice, June 1995), cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 82; F. Sherman, "Probation and the Delinquent Girl," Women, Girls, and Criminal Justice Newsletter 1 (August/September 2000): 5.

40. Bart Lubow, Juvenile Jailhouse Rocked: Reforming Detention in Chicago, Portland, and Sacramento (Baltimore: AdvoCasey, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Fall/Winter 1999).

41. See, for example, Kirsten Lindberg, Girls in Gangs: The Girls behind the Boys (Chicago: Illinois Crime Commission, 1999); note the subsequent conference on "Girls and Gangs: Princess or Predator: We Are Not Who YOU Say We Are!" Children and Family Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law, Chicago, 22 May 2000.

42. Keller, 10.

43. See, for example, Justice by Gender, 17; Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 11; Schaffner, 19, 53; Franklin K. Zimring, American Youth Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

44. Lerman, 91.

45. Ibid.; Snyder and Sickmund, 199.

46. Laurie Schaffner provided this insight, conversation with author, September 2002.

47. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Juveniles Taken into Custody: Fiscal Year 1992 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1992), 31, cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 166.

48. Lois A. Weithorn, "Mental Hospitalization of Troublesome Youth: An Analysis of Skyrocketing Admission Rates," Stanford Law Review 40 (1988): 773-838, cited in Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 85.

49. Lerman, 97.

50. Ibid., 89.

51. Chesney-Lind and Shelton, 186.

52. Keller, 23. In Chicago, more than one-fifth of the girls on probation (21.7 percent) are parenting, pregnant, or both.

53. Leslie D. Leve and Patricia Chamberlain, Delinquency in Girls: Defining and Early Onset Pathway (Eugene: Oregon Learning Center, 2001).

54. Marian Daniel, cited in John A. MacDonald and Meda Chesney-Lind, "Gender Bias and Juvenile Justice Revisited," Crime and Delinquency 47 (April 2001): 190.

55. These suggestions are my summaries of the written wisdom of Beyers, Chesney-Lind, Simon, Schaffner, Richard Wright, Fedders, Thompson, Lubow, and the JDAI work, and the whole Justice by Gender team.
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Author:Dohrn, Bernardine
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Date:Jun 22, 2004
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