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."
A System Built for Boys
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.
"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."
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 ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.