New Approaches Sought To Punish -- And Reach -- Wayward Girls
By Amy Klein
As more girls run afoul of the law, Washington area officials are rethinking traditional punishments and adding self-improvement exercises, such as museum visits, book discussion groups and bonding sessions with counselors.
Although such penalties may appear more recreational than punitive, juvenile justice officials say they are designed to reach teenage girls on terms they understand, to help them forge relation ships and develop interpersonal skills.
Throughout the region, juveniles arrested for nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting or underage drinking typically are summoned to a hearing and handed a community service sentence that may have nothing to do with the crime they committed.
Corrections officials say the newest philosophy is based on evidence that girls tend to get into trouble when they succumb to peer pressure and respond better to positive role models and activities than to traditional punishments.
Officials in Howard County will be the first in the Washington area to test this theory. This fall, caseworkers from the county's Department of Juvenile Justice will have the option of punishing girls convicted of nonviolent crimes with more than just community service.
Research showing that girls are more likely to learn from their mistakes if they are involved in positive relationships prompted the Howard County sheriff's office to design the new probation program, stressing mentorship and counseling in addition to more traditional sentences such as volunteering in nursing homes and stamping community service time sheets.
Officials say punishments must make a personal connection with girls if they are to be reformed, because traditional sentences alone do not seem to have the desired effect. The number of Howard County girls convicted of crimes such as drug or alcohol possession has more than doubled in the past six years -- from 163 in 1990 to 390 in 1996.
Other jurisdictions in the Washington area have experienced similar increases in female juvenile crime. The most marked rise came in Prince William County, where the number of girls arrested jumped nearly 208 percent -- from 65 in 1990 to 200 in 1996. Although they are concerned by the high numbers, Prince William officials said, they have no plans to institute probation programs designed specifically for girls.
Female juvenile crime in Anne Arundel County also rose, from 624 arrests in 1990 to 1,311 in 1996. Prince George's County was the only area jurisdiction to report a decrease in the crime rate among girls during those years, with female juvenile arrests dropping from 931 to 904. These statistics include both violent and nonviolent crimes.
"The young ladies are a unique population," said Neil Dorsey, who is heading the juvenile probation program in the Howard County sheriff's office. "Boys tend to be boys, and they tend to be more straightforward, but girls tend to respond to different ways of thinking."
Starting in September, 14- to 18-year-old Howard County girls sentenced to probation may be referred to a 90-day program based on core classes on women's health issues, substance abuse and anger management. In addition, girls in the program will be assigned to small group workshops, such as vocational training and cultural enhancement, to help expand their interests.
"These are things that would help them to not just do time, but also help them make choices and changes in their lives," said Judith Pasquantonio, a caseworker in the Howard County sheriff's office who was hired to assign girls to various programs.
Traditional probation is not designed to rehabilitate girls, said Linda Albrecht, a consultant for the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention who is helping the office design more gender-specific programs.
"Girls tend to talk more, and they tend to be more open in trying to deal with issues," said Rick Monroe, a caseworker who has worked with girls in the Howard County Department of Juvenile Justice. "The system isn't structured to deal with that kind of emotion. It's community service. You go in, you do your work, you go home."
Under the current system, Albrecht said, teenagers sentenced to probation check in with a counselor, show up for community service and eventually work off the hours -- a system designed for boys who have an attitude of "you do the crime, you do the time."
Girls who break the law, however, often do so because they're trying to please someone and may not see their actions as crimes, Albrecht said. A probation officer can use that tendency to connect with the girls and show them that breaking the law or the terms of their probation is akin to betraying a relationship -- and is wrong.
"A girl will sacrifice herself for a relationship and she'll often do it for the wrong reasons, so the parole officer's job is to make them do it for the right reasons," Albrecht said. "Building individual self-esteem is the most important."
Right now, such one-on-one attention is scarce in Howard County, where Department of Juvenile Justice caseworkers are swamped by serious juvenile offenses.
To help with nonviolent juvenile cases, Maryland struck a deal with Howard County in November to shift about 250 male and female probation cases to the local sheriff's office. Funded by a $40,000 state grant and $10,000 from the county, the sheriff's office hopes to place probationary teenagers in community service projects faster and enable supervisors to keep closer tabs on them.
"These are local kids, and this is the local Howard County government," Dorsey said. "Many of us who work here live in the county and know the county, and we're closer to the kids."
The Howard program is modeled loosely on the five-year-old Female Intervention Team of the Department of Juvenile Justice in Baltimore. About 450 girls currently in the FIT probation program have been ordered to participate in Girl Scout troops and enrichment programs and to listen to guest speakers who emphasize self-esteem and relationships.
Department of Juvenile Justice officials hail FIT as one of the most successful probation plans for girls in the area, and the program's directors report that the workshops and individual attention have cut by 80 percent the number of cases in which girls were committed to residential institutions. The Howard County sheriff's office is hoping for similar success.
"I want to be a mentor, a counselor and a referral agent," said Pasquantonio, who is mapping out the details of the new workshops. "We're saying . . . that we are aggressive and we are attacking. But we're hoping this will have a more personal touch."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company