Recently I clipped another small article buried deep inside yet another regional newspaper. I added it to a bulging file I keep of such stories. “Girl, 15, Given 45 Years for Murder,” it read, and then recounted a highly abbreviated tale of the youngest person ever convicted of murder in thisyoung woman’s home state, Rhode Island. Jessica Gonzalez was just 13 when she shot a 23-year-old single mother in the head in a dispute over a man. I couldn’t help wondering where the “youngest killer” story would have been played if the murderer had been male.
This is no feminist tract: The sad, simple truth is that female juvenile violence is on the upswing. But in terms of news—and in terms of national policy—it has no credibility. Scholars, law enforcement specialists and, I am sad to say, journalists, just don’t take this issue seriously.
Recent figures from the National Center for Juvenile Justice show a 23 percent increase over four years in the number of arrests for girls under 18. For boys, the figure is 11 percent. While the percentage of females under age 18 who break the law is growing, the number still remains relatively small. Also, while killers like Gonzalez are more common than ever, girls tend to be arrested for less serious offenses than boys. Nearly three-quarters of the 678,500 girls arrested in 1994—the most recent year for which FBI statistics are complete—were charged with nonviolent offenses. In short, the girls are bad, and there are more of them. But they’re not bad enough, and there’s not enough of them to draw the media’s attention to their stories in any consistent way. How’s that for a weird twist on equality?
I am fortunate to work for a newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, that often gives reporters large chunks of time to research major projects. Two years ago I spent nearly six months looking into the subject of girls in the juvenile justice system—or “bad girls,” as the project became known for short. (Truth in disclosure requires that I mention a recurring mantra I heard in reporting what became a prize-winning seven-part series was “There are no bad girls, just girls who do bad things.”) I traveled to half-a-dozen states and made contact with people in a dozen more. I was shocked at the dearth of academic specialists who knew much about this subject, in contrast to the virtual cottage industry of experts that has developed around boys. But I was thrilled to meet some amazing people in the trenches, those working directly with young women who violate the law. These people became excellent sources in helping me to understand why these girls were where they are. In fact, most of them were dying to talk. They were all too aware of—and troubled by—the simultaneous severity and obscurity of the issue. Sometimes, I felt as though they’d been waiting for my call, waiting for someone from the media to show some interest.
I also spent time with girls in jail, in residential treatment facilities and in a variety of probation programs. I met with parents, boyfriends, victims, public defenders, district attorneys, school officials, psychotherapists and social workers, politicians, and—yes—the Girl Scouts. That hardy organization has an active program for girls and women in prison.
One of my first important encounters came following a session in Baltimore’s juvenile court. Inside and out, the building has a Dickensian quality. A waiting room that lacks magazines, playthings for young children, wall decorations or even a drinking fountain is always filled to overflow capacity, so families are seen splayed around hallways, often holding hasty, way-too-public conferences with lawyers or probation officers. Kids in shackles are marched through hallways en route to court hearings. The mother I met with looked like a star saleswoman for Century 21, and in fact that’s what she was. A single mother of two daughters, she’d worked her way up from part-time receptionist. She told me that when the call came at four in the morning telling her that her younger daughter—the “good” daughter, the model-student daughter, the daughter who never even had a boyfriend, or anyway, not one that her mother knew about—was in custody for stealing a car, she was speechless. “Juvenile delinquency,” she remembered thinking. “I thought that meant boys.”
That, of course, is the prevailing opinion of most policymakers, not to mention most of us in the media. It is true that from time to time we go through a brief period of frenzied coverage about “the girl gang problem,” as if bands of marauding females with tattoos and scary hair were about to take over the universe. Not likely. Gangster girls do make good copy and provide great pictures, but my research suggested that girl gangs are largely overrated. For the most part they represent a companionate activity—a way for girls to earn points with their gangbanger boyfriends—kind of likeold-fashioned ladies’ auxiliaries. Sure, they sometimes slice each other up, often relying on the razor blades they carry under their tongues or in their big hairdos. One teenager rolled up her T-shirt to reveal a midriff scarred like a patchwork quilt, the handiwork of an enemy who was at that moment confined to the same work camp, albeit not for that particular offense. With some pride, that girl told me she used a screwdriver, not a knife or a razor.
But the truth is that girls are even more likely to commit crimes in the course of running away, generally from abusive homes. That’s the real story, the under-reported story, the one we too often miss altogether. The Baltimore real estate mother told me the trouble must have started when her daughter, then 11, was molested by an uncle. Then, in tears, she confided that she, too, was molested as a child—by her own mother. Intake studies in juvenile facilities show that 50 percent to 70 percent say they have been emotionally, physically or sexually abused—high end on sexual. Anecdotally, wardens and others inside girls prison units and the few female-specific facilities that exist for juveniles believe the figure to be far higher.
Efforts at rehabilitation generally follow a one-size-fits-all (or in this case, none) model. The juvenile justice system was, after all, designed for boys. Gender-specific treatment is rare. Not surprisingly, justice is meted out in a decidedly jagged fashion. Following the ever-popular theory that girls who commit crimes must be “crazy,” middle- and upper-class girls are often shipped off to private mental health facilities—usually compliments of their parents’ insurance policies. Some bureaucratic genius who was presumably paid by the syllable dreamed up the term “transinstitutionalization” to describe this process. The rest of the girls who commit crimes such as assault and/or battery, grand theft or robbery, drug infractions or murder are shunted off to the same kind of dismal, revolving-door youth facilities that house male offenders. As with their male counterparts, their first jail sentence is seldom their last. This is why, parenthetically, the number of adult female offenders is also skyrocketing.
But girls come equipped with another set of complexities: their ovaries. When an incarcerated juvenile gives birth, almost universally, she is immediately separated from her child. Young mothers seldom receive special breaks when it comes to jail terms—nor, necessarily, should they. Still, the implications for yet another generation are daunting and, as reporters, our stories about these girls ought to occasionally explore the impact all of this will likely have on their children.
Some girls I interviewed boasted that they were just as bad as the boy next door. Some boys I talked to admitted they were afraid of girls who practiced the art of “banking”—walking in a tight little row and methodically taking down anyone who gets in the way. Boys also expressed admiration at how tough and bloodless girls were getting to be these days. These perspectives tear apart some of our gender stereotypes and they can provide leads to more nuanced coverage of juvenile violence today.
I heard many people within the juvenile justice system refer to girls as afterthoughts or “throwaways”: invisible delinquents who are in the system—albeit a system that doesn’t really know what to do with them. The sad fact is that, in terms of public awareness, they are all but invisible, too. I’m not trying to paint an alarmist picture, but today juvenile violence is, unfortunately, an increasingly equal opportunity experience. When we report about crime, it’s important that we remember the young ladies.
Elizabeth Mehren is National Correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, based in New England, and the author of three books.