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Prepared by the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund, Juvenile Justice Study Committee. September 1996.

Minorities in the Juvenile Justice System

The Federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 requires that states determine whether the proportion of minorities in confinement exceeds their proportion in the population. If such overrepresentation is found, states must demonstrate efforts to reduce it. <67>

Nationally, African American youth are confined in facilities at a rate over three times that of white youth and the Hispanic incarceration rate in 60 percent greater than the rate for whites. In addition minority youth are more likely to be sent to public rather than private correctional facilies and are more likely to be housed in the most secure facilities. <68> Minorities made up nearly two-thirds of the juveniles held in public detention centers on February 15, 1991 and 56 percent of those in private detention centers. <69>

While minorities have arrest rates for serious crimes which are greater than those of white youth, these differences do not explain the overrepresentation of African American and Hispanic youth in correctional settings. Minority youth are more likely than whites to be arrested and detained for the same charges. In a recent study in several of the nations's largest counties, researchers found that minority youth, particularly African Americans, were almost twice as likely to be held in secure pretrial confinement than were white youth. Higher minority detention rates were observed even when controlling for gender, arrest charge, home living situation and prior offense history. Once securely detained, minorities are confined for longer periods of time than whites. <70>

A substantial body of research suggests that the greatest disparity occurs at intake and detention decision points. When racial/ethnic differences are found, they tend to accumulate as youth are processed through the justice system. Also cases in urban jurisdictions are more likely to receive severe outcomes at various stages of processing than are cases in nonurban areas. Because minority populations are concentrated in urban areas, this effect may work to the disadvantage on minority youth and result in greater overrepresentation. <71>

A 1993 study by OJJDP of incarcerated youth in California found that, although minorities in California make up only 54% of the juvenile population, in 1991 they made up 74% of those in short-term facilities and 82% in long-term ones. <72> A 1992 study on how minority youth were processed through the juvenile justice system in California found that race plays direct and indirect roles in the decision making process throughout the system. Minority youth, particularly African Americans, consistently receive more severe dispositions than white youth, and are more likely to be committed to state institutions than whites for the same offenses. The study report also noted that urban areas, where arrest rates are high, offer less community alternatives to incarceration. <73>

Michael Jones and Barry Krisberg of NCCD note that any expansion of the use of mandatory sentencing or other similar get-tough policies will disproportionately affect minorities further. Between 1977 and 1979, for example, when rates of youth incarceration were increasing, minority youth accounted for 93 percent of the entire increase. <74>

Girls Involved in the Juvenile Justice System

OJJDP recently published a report on girls in the juvenile justice system, in cooperation with Girls Incorporated of New York. Since so little is written about this problem, most of the information in this section comes from that publication.

The juvenile justice system reflects society's assumptions about gender. Boys are perceived to threaten the community with violent behavior, girls by flouting moral standards. Society is presumed to need protection from boys; girls are presumed to need protection from themselves. The dearth of research about girls adds to confusion both about the nature and extent of girls' involvement in delinquency and their treatment in the juvenile justice system. Most of the literature on delinquency focuses on boys; major studies attempting to understand and predict delinquency include few if any girls in their study samples. <75>

Extent of Girls' Involvement in Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice:

In 1994 girls accounted for the following percentage of total juvenile arrests:

    25% all arrests
    18.6% aggravated assault.
    8-9% robbery, sex offenses (other than rape & prostitution), & weapons offenses
    6% murder & non-negligent man-slaughter
In 1984 girls accounted for
    22% all arrests

In 1994, an estimated 678,500 girls were arrested across the country, most of them between 13 and 17 years old. Many of those arrested were charged with status offenses, such as running away, violating curfews, being ungovernable, underage drinking and truancy. Girls are also arrested for theft, getting into fights, fraud (passing bad checks), simple assault and violating liquor laws.

Forty-three percent of girls are processed formally with a petition filed in court, the other fifty-seven percent informally. Sometimes parents are permitted to place daughters (more often than sons), charged with delinquent or status offenses, in private facilities as an alternative to an appearance in court. <76> A 1993 federal study found that girls represented 11 percent of juvenile offenders detained in public facilities, but 27 percent of the private facility population. <77>

Risk Factors for Involvement of Girls in Delinquency and Juvenile Justice:

While any one of the following risk factors by themselves may not lead to delinquency, the interplay among them sharply increases the likelihood of a female teenager becoming involved in the juvenile justice system. A history of :

  1. being a victim of violence, sexual abuse or physical abuse,

  2. association with peers who engage in delinquent acts, drug abuse or gangs,

  3. difficulty is school, with academic subjects, behavioral expectations, pregnancy or conflicting responsibilities such as care of own young children, and

  4. substance abuse, tobacco, alcohol or drugs, predate involvement with the juvenile justice system. <78>

Factors Affecting How Girls are Treated by the Juvenile Justice System

The limited placement options available specifically for girls interact with gender, race, and socioeconomic status to directly affect the disposition of girls in the juvenile justice system. Girls are often inappropriately placed in facilities and programs that were designed for boys or that emphasize security over intervention and treatment. Many facilities serving young people are mixed-sex facilities, where the specific needs and strengths of girls are ignored or shortchanged because they are the minority group housed in the facility. These facilities uslually do not offer programs for pregnant and parenting teens, sexual abuse treatment, substance abuse treatment or educational programs that consider the strengths and needs of girls. Vocational programs, if they exist at all, often use outdated facilities and push girls toward low-paying, dead-end, stereotypically female occupations. <79>

Effective Programs Offer Prevention and Parity

The report recommends that programs should address the factors that place young women at risk of delinquent behaviors. To effectively address the problem, every community needs to establish a continuum of program options, ranging from prevention to intervenion to aftercare, which also ensure the girls' safety. These programs should meet the needs of the girls as individuals, to take female development into account and avoid perpetuating limiting stereotypes based on gender, race, class, language, sexual orientation, disability and other personal and cultural factors.

Programs need to focus on providing educational opportunities, employment and vocational training that prepares girls for real opportunities. They need to address female-specific health and wellness issues in their cirriculum. In addition to providing adequate physical and mental health care, programs should provide accurate information about sexulity education, parenting, eating disorders and HIV/AIDS. They should provide sexual abuse and substance abuse treatment. <80>

Policy Recommendations

The OJJDP report recommends :

  1. focus of prevention and early intervention,

  2. expand research on young women,

  3. stop differential treatment of female juvenile offenders, such as charging them more frequently than boys with a delinquent offense for violation of a court order,

  4. promote gender-specific instead of gender-stereotyped interventions since not all girls have traditionally female interests or talents,

  5. tailor treatment to fit individual needs,

  6. create more alternatives to abusive home situations since many girls first come in contact with the juvenile justice system, trying to excape an abusive situation at home, and

  7. prepare girls for a positive future. <81>

Girls in the California Juvenile Justice System

The State has the following county programs, specifically for girls:

In a recent study of women in prison in the three states of California, Florida and Connecticut, the following were found to be the backgrounds of the women in the study group in California.

Special Class in School due to Learning or Behavior Problems 26%
Expelled or Suspended from School 34%
Held back or Repeated a Grade 20%
Median age First Expelled or Suspended 12 years
Median Age First Held Back or Repeated Grade 8 years
Family ever on Public Assistance while Growing up 29.4%
Ever Ran Away as a Child 62.7%
Median Age First Ran Away 13 years
Ever lived in Foster Home 29.4%
Medium Age First Lived in Foster Home 13 years
Ever Lived in Group Home 29.2%
Ever Arrested as a Juvenile 45.1%
Ever Arrested as a Status Offender 39.1%
Ever Declared Delinquent 32%
Ever Ward of the Court 25.5%
Ever on Juvenile Probation 34%
Locked up more than one day 44.2%

National Council on Crime and Delinquency, The Crisis; Women in Prison, The Women Offender Sentencing Study and Alternative Sentencing Recommendation Project, 1996, 48, 49.

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Prepared by the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund, Juvenile Justice Study Committee. September 1996.