Girls' crimes worry some officials Rate is increasing

'more serious side' of delinquency seen

Equality of 'thug life'

Number referred to juvenile system doubles in 6 years

July 28, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

With the good looks of a cheerleader, the blond 16-year-old girl hardly seems a representative of Howard County's newest juvenile crime problem.

But the Mount Hebron High School ninth-grader -- facing charges in juvenile court that she and others burglarized and vandalized four cars in the school parking lot -- is just the kind of case that troubles local juvenile authorities.

Girls once "were on the less serious side of delinquency and now they're heading to darker areas," says JoD Straub, a Howard County juvenile justice case manager who is developing a nontraditional probation program for girls.

While saying that far fewer girls than boys get involved in juvenile crime, social workers worry about girls' rising involvement in everything from schoolyard scuffles to carjacking.

Though most cases do not end in court, the number of girls referred to the Howard County Juvenile Justice Department by police and citizens has more than doubled in six years -- from 165 cases in fiscal 1990, to 390 in fiscal 1996.

In the period from 1990 to 1995 -- the latest year for which referrals for boys were available -- the number of cases involving boys rose at a slightly slower pace, from 660 cases to 1,251, an increase of 90 percent.

Although comparative figures were not available for 1996, female offenders in 1995 still represented a small portion of the county's juvenile cases -- one-fifth of those referred to authorities.

County law-enforcement and social services workers say that in recent years, they have seen a rise in simple assaults involving girls, often triggered by fights over boyfriends. They also cite an increase in shoplifting, petty theft, alcohol and tobacco offenses.

That follows a national trend.

"It's just becoming more acceptable for girls to react violently," says Geoffrey Canada, the New York City-based president of the Rheedleen centers for Children and Families, which runs after-school programs for inner-city youths.

In a gender-blurring world, taboos about girls fighting have weakened, he said. The culture of today -- from female superheroes to gun-toting rap stars -- has created a standard of "toughness" for girls, he said.

"It's equal-opportunity thug life," he said.

Marion Daniel, area director of Baltimore's Department of Juvenile Justice, said, "I think girls are beginning to take on the characteristics of the society. I think the society is more violent than it was 20 years ago."

Social workers also say teen-agers spend much more time unsupervised than they once did, an outgrowth of homes where both parents work.

"Kids get in trouble when they are not supervised," says Susan Leviton, a University of Maryland law professor and founder of the nonprofit group Advocates for Children and Youth.

She says that as behavioral stereotypes for girls have been swept aside, girls of all socioeconomic classes are trying more risky behavior, in line with what their male peers are doing.

"Girls are trying to figure out what is crossing the line," Leviton says.

But some skeptics argue that girls are no more violent then they were 20 years ago and say that concern about female violence is due in part to a backlash against the feminist movement.

Study is intensified

"We are paying more attention to them, and they are more likely to get arrested," said Meda Chesney-Lind, director of women's studies at the University of Hawaii and author of "Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice."

Her 1994 article cites FBI statistics showing that serious violent crime among girls had increased only slightly nationwide, from 10.6 percent in 1977 to 11.7 percent in 1991. While acknowledging that female juvenile crime can be a concern, she says, "it's a mole, not a skin cancer."

Others who work with juveniles also caution that statistics showing a dramatic rise in offenders may give an inaccurate picture of girls and crime.

They say the overall increase in juvenile arrests is due in part to tougher enforcement and more laws governing juvenile behavior such as Howard County's strict enforcement of alcohol and tobacco policies.

"We're dealing with hundreds of tobacco citations we didn't deal with years ago," Straub said.

Workers also stress that they see the overwhelming majority of juvenile offenders only once.

Still, authorities agree that the number of female offenders generally is on the rise, a pattern not confined to the inner cities.

In Howard County, for example, law-enforcement and school officials have seen a rise in disruptive and delinquent behavior among girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Troubled by continual fights and aggressive behavior among some 20 girls at Wilde Lake High School last year, school system officials and police set up a counseling team to work with them.

Officials cite names of girls' gangs throughout the county -- such as Nasty Girls Crew, in Columbia's Wilde Lake village, and Head Bitches in Charge, in Laurel.

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