President Obama, in his remarks after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, asked what we could do as a nation to “learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?” One of his thoughts was to “spend some time thinking about how we bolster our African American boys.”
Many, especially in the African American community, agree with him. In fact some see the Martin case as an opportunity for a national discussion about young black males and the justice system. Certainly a national focus on young African American males is overdue, particularly given their over-representation in the delinquency system. However, as we look for strategies to “bolster” black boys, it’s important to acknowledge that African American girls are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system, and need just as much attention.
A recent report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) shows that while males still dominate the justice system, the caseload for girls has grown significantly — from 20 percent of all juvenile arrests in 1980 to 30 percent in 2009. Girls of color make up nearly two-thirds of the female juvenile justice population. In fact, according OJJDP research, the average girl in the system is between 15 to 16 years old; lives in an urban environment with one parent and is a girl of color.
Experts agree that the increase in girl offenders over the past several decades is not due to a “girls gone wild” phenomenon. Girls still commit far fewer violent crimes than boys. More girls are ending up in court because of policies and policing practices such as zero tolerance in schools and state statutes against domestic violence that now encompass minor-age victims and offenders and result in mandatory arrests. Also, according to a study by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy, girls are far more likely than boys to be detained for non-serious offenses such as truancy, running away and underage drinking or technical probation violations, such as missing a meeting with a probation officer or violating curfew.
Given the statistics, race is clearly a determinant in which girls get arrested and enter the system. Troubled African American girls and other girls of color often live in heavily policed neighborhoods and attend schools that enforce zero tolerance policies. These girls are more likely to come to the attention of law enforcement than white girls. Studies show that girls of color tend to benefit less from leniency and diversion programs and generally receive harsher punishments than white girls for similar offenses. Some researchers and advocates speculate that these differences in treatment may result from negative stereotypes that police and court officials have about girls of color, which can influence decision-making.
Advocates and researchers also say that girls’ offending is often connected to complicated life experiences that need to be explored and addressed. For example, the “average” delinquent girl has been the victim of physical, sexual or psychological abuse; comes from a more dysfunctional family than most delinquent boys and has been in foster care. Delinquent behavior such as running away from home or domestic fighting may for these girls be a rational response to an unbearable home situation.
Helen Wade, executive director of Young Ladies of Tomorrow (YLOT), one of the few programs in Washington that serves delinquent girls, says, “Our girls come to us with mother, father, and anger issues because they’ve been mistreated.” Like most boys in the system, delinquent girls from tough neighborhoods have to be willing to fight to protect themselves. A 16 year old African American probationer in Wade’s program who was locked up for fighting says, “I had to fight. You can’t let people see you scared.”
Resources to help these girls are frustratingly limited. The juvenile system is geared to boys and ill equipped to meet girls needs. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is attempting to make reforms. However, according to the Georgetown report, reform efforts are being hampered by declining federal investments in programs to reduce delinquency. State budgets for juvenile justice programs have been radically cut as well.
Some advocates like Child Welfare League of America are developing “gender specific programming” designed to meet the needs of girls in or at risk of entering the juvenile system. YLOT is helping participants build trusting relationships with adults and peers; develop skills for making good decisions and make positive use of survival skills they already have. As the girl in Wade’s program says, “all we know is the hood.”
Much needs to be done to raise the visibility of African American girls in the justice system and the issues they face: their disproportionate numbers, harsher treatment and the lack of services to meet their needs. Yes, it would be wonderful if the country were to focus on troubled black boys. But we shouldn’t forget about black girls.
Bernardine (Dine) Watson is a social policy researcher and writer living in Washington DC. Follow her on Twitter at @dinewatson.