Girls in the juvenile justice system

Barry C. Feld

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

12 Scopus citations


The Progressive reformers who created the juvenile court in 1899 envisioned a specialized agency to separate children from adult offenders and to treat them rather than to punish them for their crimes (Platt 1977; Rothman 1980; Ryerson 1978). Initially, juvenile courts' delinquency jurisdiction encompassed only youths charged with crimes, but within a few years reformers added status offenses-noncriminal misconduct prohibited for juveniles that would not be criminal if engaged in by adults, such as "incorrigibility," runaway, and "indecent and lascivious conduct" (Feld 2004)-to its jurisdiction. Historically, juvenile courts responded to boys primarily for criminal misconduct and to girls mainly for status offenses (Schlossman 1977; Sutton 1988). The status jurisdiction refl ected Progressives' cultural construction of childhood dependency as well as their sexual sensibilities. From the beginning, juvenile courts focused on controlling female sexuality (Schlossman and Wallach 1978; Sutton 1988; Tanenhause 2004). Judges detained and incarcerated females for minor and status offenses at higher rates than they did boys (Platt 1977; Schlossman 1977). A century later, the issues posed by status offenders remain unanswered. How should the juvenile justice system respond to youths who disobey parents, truant from school, run away from home, or engage in misconduct that places them in dangerous and vulnerable circumstances (Maxson and Klein 1997)? The Supreme Court's In re Gault (387 U.S. 1, 1967) decision precipitated a critical reexamination of juvenile court procedure, jurisdiction, and practice (Feld 1999). Gault granted procedural rights to delinquents-youths charged with criminal behavior whom the state could confi ne-but had no immediate applicability to status offenders. Juvenile courts' greater formality provided some impetus to divert status offenders at the jurisdictional "soft" end, to transfer serious offenders for adult criminal prosecution at the "hard" end, and to punish more severely the delinquents who remained within the "tougher" juvenile justice system (Feld 1999). Although the courts' status jurisdiction potentially encompassed nearly all misbehaving youths, by the early 1970s critics objected that it allowed judges to incarcerate noncriminal offenders with delinquents in detention facilities and institutions, that it stigmatized them with delinquency labels, discriminated against females, and provided few benefi cial services. Judicial intervention at the behest of parents provided some access to state power to control children, but exacerbated intrafamilial confl icts and enabled some caretakers to avoid their responsibilities. Status offenses overloaded juvenile courts with domestic disputes, diverted scarce resources from more serious offenders, and raised troublesome legal issues about vague jurisdictional defi nitions and procedural defi - ciencies. In the early 1970s, states charged about three-quarters of the girls with whom juvenile courts dealt as status offenders (National Council on Crime and Delinquency 1975; Schwartz, Steketee, and Schneider 1990). Supreme Court decisions, state law reforms, and the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA) provided the impetus for three types of reforms of jurisdiction over status offenders-diversion, deinstitutionalization, and decriminalization. Increased procedural formality and administrative costs provided impetus to divert many troublesome juveniles' cases and to handle them informally and outside of the juvenile justice system. Federal prohibitions on confi ning noncriminal status offenders with delinquents in secure detention facilities and training schools spurred efforts to deinstitutionalize status offenders and greatly benefi ted girls. States redefi ned status offenses to remove them from the generic defi nition of delinquency, relabeled them as Persons or Children in Need of Supervision (PINS or CHINS) or other euphemism, or shifted them into juvenile courts' dependency or neglect jurisdiction. The JJDPA limited judges' authority to confi ne status offenders in secure public facilities. However, it did not adequately fund resources for community-based alternatives or provide effective interventions to address the inevitable confl icts that arise between children and their parents, schools, and other agencies (Maxson and Klein 1997). After three decades of juvenile justice reforms, states' failure to create and fund services on a voluntary basis-family counseling, shelter care, crisis centers, work programs, and the like-provides a continuing impetus to intervene coercively because the social problems posed by status offenders remain unaddressed. The lack of alternatives creates systemic pressures to circumvent the federal deinstitutionalization mandate, "where there's a will, there's a way to detain legally undetainable youth" (Maxson and Klein 1997, p. 20). Status offenders are not a discrete or unique category of miscreants, but rather share many of the characteristics and behavioral versatility of delinquent offenders and lend themselves to reclassifi cation as delinquents. Juvenile courts have adopted three subversion strategies to evade the obligation to deinstitutionalize status offenders. One strategy is to relabel status offenders involved in domestic disputes as delinquents by charging them with minor criminal violations, such as simple assault. A second is to impose conditions of probation that youths will fail to meet and then to incarcerate them for contempt of court. A third strategy is to transfer them into private mental health and chemical dependency facilities for treatment and confi nement (Costello and Worthington 1981; Federle and Chesney-Lind 1992; Kempf-Leonard and Sample 2000). Coinciding with federal deinstitutionalization policies, macrostructural economic and racial demographic changes during the 1970s and 1980s led to the emergence of an urban black underclass and increased the punitiveness of juvenile justice policies in ways that indirectly affect girls. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the epidemic of crack cocaine, increased gun violence, and homicide committed by young black males spurred states to "get tough" and "crack down" on youth crime (Blumstein 1996; Feld 1999; Zimring 1998). Over the past two decades, legal changes transferred more juveniles to criminal courts for prosecution as adults and endorsed punishment as appropriate responses for those delinquents who remain in juvenile courts. Waiver of juvenile court jurisdiction involves the transfer of chronological juveniles to criminal court for prosecution as adults. Recent reforms have expanded categories of youths eligible for transfer, reduced the age of criminal responsibility, shifted discretion from judges to prosecutors, and refl ected a broader cultural and jurisprudential shift from rehabilitative to retributive penal policies (Feld 2003; Garland 2001; Tonry 2004). Similar legal changes authorized juvenile court judges to punish delinquents more severely (Feld 1998; Torbet et al. 1996). Although the punitive legal changes primarily targeted and affected boys, especially black youths (Feld 1999), the shift in juvenile justice responses to youth violence adversely affected girls charged with assault, even though they were not the intended object (Chesney-Lind and Belknap 2004; Poulin 1996). This chapter focuses on justice system responses to girls in light of contradictory policies to deinstitutionalize status offenders and to get tough with violent offenders. It assesses the offenses for which police arrest girls, how juvenile courts process them, what dispositions they receive, and what collateral consequences they experience as a result of legal intervention. It analyzes comparatively how juvenile courts process girls and boys charged with similar offenses. It examines how juvenile courts handle cases of white girls and those of other racial groups to assess disproportionate minority confi nement. Finally, because of the "crackdown" on youth violence, it focuses on how juvenile courts handle girls' assaults as an indicator of their changing mission and an example of an adaptive strategy to relabel girls' misconduct to circumvent federal policies. The chapter argues that at least some of the perceived increase in girls' violence of the past decades is an artifact of justice system responses. The deinstitutionalization of status offenders provided impetus to relabel status offenders to allow coercive intervention. The crackdown on youth violence and the separate emphasis on combating domestic violence exacerbated the relabeling of status offenders by lowering the threshold for conduct defi ned as an assault, especially within the family context. This review summarizes many studies conducted in different jurisdictions and at different times. Juvenile courts vary substantially from state to state and by geographic locale within states, and organizational diversity limits somewhat the generalizability of research fi ndings (Feld 1991). The National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) and Offi ce of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) maintain a number of analytical data sets accessible on the Internet-the Statistical Briefi ng Book, Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics (EZAJCS) (Snyder, Puzzanchera, and Kang 2005), the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placements (Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang 2004), national population estimates derived from census data (Puzzanchera, Finnegan, and Kang 2005), and juvenile crime statistics derived from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2003).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Delinquent Girl
EditorsMargaret A. Zahn
PublisherTemple University Press
Number of pages40
ISBN (Print)9781592139514
StatePublished - 2009


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