“Bad Girls” and Gendered Pathways to Delinquency

Meda Chesney-Lind, a feminist criminologist, argues that, “girls in the juvenile justice system were once dubbed the ‘forgotten few’” (19). There has been a large spike in girls’ delinquency, and it is imperative that we understand it in context: “Girls’ capacity for aggression and violence has historically been ignored, trivialized, or denied” (Chesney-Lind 19). Chesney-Lind also argues that in the psychology literature on aggression “shows that boys and men are more likely to be physically aggressive than females, but the differences begin to even out when verbal aggression is considered. Further, adolescent girls may be more likely than boys to use ‘indirect aggression’ such as gossip, telling bad or false stories, or revealing secrets” (19).

It is also imperative to look at girls’ violence within a patriarchal context. Studies of girls’ self-reporting their violence reported higher rates of abuse and victimization, and these girls also reported a greater fear of sexual assault. Specifically, one out of four of these “violent girls” had been sexually abused, and twenty percent said they were physically abused at home (compared with ten percent of violent boys) (Chesney-Lind 20).

Although there has been much recent media sensationalization of girls’ delinquency, girls’ invisibility within the juvenile justice system often leaves them out of the discussion on criminalization and “pipelining.” Meda Chesney-Lind argues that, “what needs to be understood about girls’ delinquency, particularly from a programmatic and policy standpoint, is the clear link between victimization, trauma, and girls’ delinquency” (20). Further, it is important to realize that this trauma hasn’t produced more violent offenses, but it has lead to the increase of traditionally deemed “trivial” or unimportant offenses, such as running away. Relabeling of “status offenses” (running away, needs supervision, etc.) as violent has lead to a dramatic increase in arrests for girls.

One of these relabeling of “status offenses” that Chesney-Lind discusses is girls’ arguments with parents. Arguing with parents has been relabeled “assault,” and Chesney-Lind argues that this is a form of “bootstrapping”: “it facilitates the incarceration of girls, especially African-Americans, in detention facilities and training schools” (20).  Further, the media capitalized on this increase in incarceration of girls in the 1990s, and it aided in the construction of the discourse on “bad girls.” This discourse presents a narrative that does not reflect the lived experiences of those girls who are have been criminalized, and it also does not reflect structural realities that have impacted their criminalization.

Gendered and Raced Differences in Delinquency

Although media attention of girls’ juvenile delinquency has increased over the past couple of decades, the research on policy and programs for “at risk” girls has not. There are gendered differences in girls’ pathways to delinquency and their needs while in the juvenile justice system. For example, research data has consistently pointed to a strong link between “victimization, trauma and girls’ delinquency” (Bloom & Covington 3). Also, running away is the most prevalent risk factor for girls’ involvement in the juvenile justice system (data has pointed to boys and girls running away from home in equal numbers, but girls are arrested more often) (Bloom & Covington 3). Further, recent studies have pointed to running away and drug use as the primary means through which girls cope and survive abusive homes.

As I’ve mentioned before, girls are disproportionately charged with status offenses. They are also more likely to be detained for minor offenses such as “public disorder, probation violation, status offenses, and traffic offenses (29% of girls and 19% of boys)” (Bloom & Covington 4). African American girls make up half of all of those in detention facilities, and only three out of ten cases for African American girls are dismissed (compared to seven out of ten cases for white girls) (Bloom & Covington 5).

Many girls entering the juvenile justice system are placed into programs that were created for delinquent boys (Bloom & Covington 5). There is a need to create effective programs and approaches for addressing specific gendered needs of girls. However, “we must be sure that gender-based services do not become sexist services (e.g. providing less funding for girls because they aren’t as great of a threat as boys, etc.)” (Bloom & Covington 6). According to the Ms. Foundation for Women,

“To be fully effective for girls and boys, the design and operation of a program must consider gender—not in a manner that regards gender differences innate and unchangeable, but in a way that explores the social construction of gender and invites young women and men to challenge gender norms, examine gender privilege, and create balance of power between girls and boys.”

Thus there needs to be a push for the creation of programs that understand the lived realities of girls’ experiences, and are content and context specific. Bloom & Covington argue that programming for girls needs to take place in an environment that is “conducive to a therapeutic change process” and it “needs to deal in a comprehensive and integrated way with the multiple issues that are impacting girls’ lives” (7).

Here’s an example of a facility/program that seems to be doing a better job than most. The Rosa Parks’ Center in Missouri has no guards, no lockdown’s, and it has replaced the prison-like feel of most youth detention centers with dorms. The girls go through intensive therapy, and in the words of one of the girls, they are able to “get to the issues, and get to the core problems.”


What do you think about the push to overhaul youth detention centers/programs? Further, do you think it is just a “band aid” easy fix that doesn’t address the larger structural issues?

In Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Victor Rios presents us with a way to conceptualize gender as a “social process that changes based on interactions with specific types of institutions,” that, “in turn allows us to explore how the criminal justice system shapes the development of specific forms of masculinity” (129). Do you think the criminal justice system shapes the development of specific forms of femininity?

Works Cited:

Bloom, Barbara and Stephanie S. Covington. “Effective Gender-Responsive Interventions in Juvenile Justice: Addressing the Lives of Delinquent Girls.” Paper presented at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology Atlanta, Georgia, November 7-10, 2001. http://centerforgenderandjustice.org/pdf/7.pdf. 6 April 2012.

Chesney-Lind, Meda “Are Girls Closing the Gender Gap in Violence. Criminal Justice. 16.1 (2001): 18-23. Web. 5 April 2012.

Rios, Victor. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York: New York University Press: 2011.


One thought on ““Bad Girls” and Gendered Pathways to Delinquency

  1. Vera Lopez says:

    Rachel, thanks for a great post. I’m also glad that you cited Meda’s very important work in this area. I 100% agree that our juvenile “correctional” facilities aren’t correcting anything! I don’t know if I mentioned in class, but I spent a year working at Black Canyon as a clinical intern. I observed a stark contrast between the “clinical” versus “security” goals of the institution. Although many clinicians worked hard to address girls’ emotional needs, our efforts were limited by institutional constraints–including limited resources, harsh rules, and an overall “prison-like” environment. Budgetary cuts resulted in fewer clinicians and girls were often sent back out into the community with very little support systems in place. Sadly, many of the girls I worked with ended up back in the system within a couple of months. It was heartbreaking. So, yes, I absolutely believe we SHOULD and CAN do a better job of helping girls in the system. Thanks for a great post. You’ve hit upon a topic close to my heart. 🙂

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