Girls at Greater Risk in Justice System

"For girls," Gavazzi says, "the family matters so very much. That doesn't mean family is not important for boys, because it certainly is. But girls in particular seem to be very significantly impacted by problems in the family."

Uneven Expectations

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that girls are held to different standards than boys. Adults tend to dismiss marginal behavior by males with that old excuse, "boys will be boys."

But girls are supposed to be very different, paving the way for frequent clashes with parental authority. "Girls will be girls" won't work for them.

And when they hit the juvenile justice system, Gavazzi says, they are not very likely to find the help they need because "the system was not built to address girls." Often they are turned back over to the family and admonished to patch up their differences with their parents.

That probably won't work unless the court also directs the family to the kind of counseling and help that could make a difference. But in most cases that isn't done because the system is designed to protect the rest of us from all those thugs out there, not help girls who may be heading for troubled waters.

And that, Gavazzi says, may help explain why national statistics show that the crime rate for boys has remained fairly steady over the last decade, while the crime rate for girls has risen dramatically.

According to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, cases involving juvenile males across the country actually dropped by 5 percent during the 1990s. But here's the show stopper:

The number of cases involving females increased a whopping 59 percent, from 250,100 to 398,600. And the growth was across the board.

"The growth in cases involving females outpaced the growth in cases involving males in all offense categories," the agency reported.

Gavazzi says that ought to wake us all up.

"If I had a magic wand I would wave it and have the juvenile justice system pay more attention to issues related to family," he says. "Working with a family is more effective than imprisoning a youth."

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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