For the past few years, the Women and the Law Committee of the Illinois State Bar Association has devoted time and interest on the issues of girls in the juvenile justice and women in the criminal justice systems. During much of that period, I served as Executive Director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and was blessed with having some excellent researchers who shared my passion regarding these issues.
In May 2009, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority released a report “Examining at-risk and delinquent girls in Illinois,” prepared by Lindsay Bostwick, Research Analyst, and Jessica Ashley, Senior Research Analyst. The report can be found on its Web site at.
Ms. Bostwick and Ms. Ashley found that girls, both in Illinois and nationally, comprise the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system. Between 2002-2007, Illinois girls experienced a greater arrest rate than boys. The researchers further found that during the overlapping period of 1999 to 2004, the rate of boys being committed to state juvenile justice facilities decreased. They found that victimization, substance abuse and school failure are the primary reasons that girls become involved in the system.
Girls’ arrest patterns differed from those of boys; girls arrests were primarily for status offenses, non-compliance with the juvenile justice system orders and misdemeanor offenses. Similarly, admission to the local juvenile detention facilities and commitments to the Illinois Department of Corrections—Juvenile Division, now the Department of Juvenile Justice, were for less serious offenses. For instance, girls were arrested, detained and committed more frequently for obstructing justice and contempt of court than their male counterparts. Furthermore, girls were arrested more frequently for local ordinance violations than boys and were arrested, detained and committed more for disorderly conduct and mob action than boys.
The report found that girls’ arrests, detention and commitments were more likely to be for crimes against persons especially for the offense of battery. Girls more often became involved in the system for misdemeanors rather than for felony offenses. Few Illinois girls were arrested for sex offenses, and when they were during the examined period, they were charged as misdemeanants. Few girls became involved in the juvenile justice system for weapons offenses, and once again girls’ arrests were more likely to be for misdemeanor weapons offenses than boys’ arrests.
Additionally, the report stated that data for girls was available for some of the known risk factors for delinquent behavior: individual, family and school risk factors. Although individual factors for delinquency can include mental health problems, aggression, violence, learning disabilities and substance abuse and sexual health, the only data available on Illinois girls pertained to substance abuse and sexual health. As to substance abuse, the research found that girls were more likely than boys to abuse alcohol, inhalants and prescription drugs. With respect to sexual health, the study found that although births to teenage mothers have decreased in Illinois, more Illinois girls are likely to have a sexually transmitted disease than boys.
The researchers also reviewed family risk factors such as abuse and neglect, sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation. They found that in Illinois, girls were almost equally at risk for neglect, but more at risk for physical and sexual abuse than boys. Runaway girls were more likely to be victims of sexual exploitation and violence than boys.
With respect to school factors, the researchers found that although truancies and suspensions have increased for both Illinois girls and boys, girls had more school truancies and suspensions than boys.
Following its examination of arrest, detention and commitment rates, as well delving into potential reasons for disparate treatment of girls which range from paternalistic harsher treatment to chivalrous “easier” treatment, the report examined gender specific programming aimed at combating female delinquency. It outlined national model programs publicized by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and noted that there are few programs in Illinois geared toward at-risk girls, especially outside of Cook County. The report provided a list of resources available for services for girls involved and not involved in the juvenile justice system.
The Authority’s report concluded that although much has been written about girls becoming more involved in the juvenile justice system, Illinois girls’ participation is similar to national trends. Even so, both nationally and in Illinois, girls are 80 percent less likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system than boys and more likely to enter the system for more minor offenses than boys. The report opined that since girls differ from boys in risks, needs and offending patterns, girls need special programs directed to their specific needs.
In summary, the Authority’s report found that girls are the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system; girls’ arrest, detention and commitment patterns differ from those of boys'; girls have distinctive risk factors that contribute to delinquent behaviors, and girls benefit from gender-based programs directed to their specific needs. As the Illinois State Bar Association examines the juvenile justice system during this bar association year, the data on at-risk and delinquent Illinois girls should be remembered when the Association crafts policy and programs to help our state’s youth. ■