Boys who commit serious crimes are the focus of the juvenile justice system in this country because the system, quite bluntly, is designed to protect adults from out-of-control thugs. But new research indicates we may be concentrating on the wrong sex.
Girls, according to studies out of Ohio State University in Columbus, are actually at higher risk than boys for venturing down the wrong path later in life. That's because the problems girls face are very different from those confronting males, and the justice system is failing to address that, according to Stephen Gavazzi, professor of human development and family science at Ohio State and co-author of a study to be published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.
Gavazzi and his colleagues have been following 305 juveniles who were detained by authorities in an effort to assess their chances of turning their lives around. Are they in deep trouble, facing problems that are likely to ruin their lives, or are they just off on the wrong foot?
"The work we've been doing over the years had led us to believe there were some profound differences between girls and boys that were hitting the juvenile justice system," Gavazzi says. "Girls and boys were getting arrested and detained for very different things."
Boys were far more likely to be arrested because of traditional criminal behavior, like taking someone else's car for a joy ride or stealing a six pack or punching another kid's lights out.
Girls, on the other hand, were far more likely to be detained because of behavior that wouldn't be considered a crime if they were adults. That includes running away from home, serious trouble with a parent or promiscuity.
That may not be particularly surprising, but the researchers were astounded when they analyzed the answers to questions they had posed to the 305 juveniles to help evaluate their chances for more trouble in the years ahead. It was the girls, not the boys, who were at the highest risk.
The questions grew out of a project at Ohio State called the Global Risk Assessment Device, which is directed by Courtney Yarcheck, co-author of the recent study. The juveniles were asked questions like how often they get into fights with their parents, if they have friends who have been in trouble with the law or how hard it is to control their temper.
It turned out that the boys had been in trouble with authorities earlier than the girls, but in all the major assessment areas, girls were clearly at higher risk than boys. That included such things as family conflicts, health and some kind of trauma.
Girls, for example, had more friends who had been in trouble with the police than boys, although boys had been arrested at an earlier age. And that's simply because the system is designed to nail those who are committing crimes against persons and property, and that's usually males.
"For the most part, the juvenile justice system has been built on male models," Gavazzi says. "How do you deal, basically, with boys?"
And that's a very serious mistake, he says, because a great deal of research shows that the sooner an errant youth gets help, the more likely the treatment will be successful. But the treatment for boys and girls needs to be very different because the source of the problem is so different.