Tales from the inside

November 05, 2003

HOW DO we save girls gone bad? First it helps to learn how they got there.

One vivid illustration is the new documentary Girlhood, which follows two Baltimore girls for three years, starting with their stays in juvenile detention centers and tracking them after they return home.

One girl is a killer who hadn't had brushes with the law before; the other has a lengthy record of run-ins. They recount gang-rape, experiments with drugs and unsafe sex, struggles to maintain ties with their families and a sense of their own self-worth. The film also illustrates that in juvenile justice, nothing is as simple as black and white.

As the total number of juvenile arrests has continued to decline, the proportion of girls arrested has risen. From 1995 to 2002, the proportion of girls charged with the most violent crimes rose from 15 percent to 18 percent, and the proportion charged with assault rose from 28 percent to 32 percent, according to FBI reports. Boys still make up the bulk of arrests.

And the jump in girls' arrests isn't because there are more "bad" girls but because of changing public attitudes and criminal policies. More girls are now arrested during domestic disturbances, where before no one was arrested. More are being charged with minor crimes because of zero-tolerance policies at schools. Officers and the courts are less likely to single someone out for special treatment just because she's a girl than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

But some things still are different for girls. Many more girls are sexually abused than are boys; when Department of Juvenile Services workers a decade ago stopped telling girls not to run away and started asking them why they were doing it, they found many were running from abuse. Not the best argument for arresting the child, although it may be a good argument for finding her a new home.

Girlhood also offers an eloquent argument against trying kids as adults. As 14-year-old Shanae talks about the girl she killed, she seems unclear that her actions caused a girl to die. But two years later, she is making connections between how she feels when hearing about killings on TV news and what she has done - and what it means for the victim. Her change expresses the most basic argument for not automatically waiving children into adult court, despite the seriousness of the crime: They don't have the judgment or the emotional skills to understand and face such charges.

The two young women in the film bravely tell their stories; their addition to the debate is welcome.

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