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Girls Need Safety, Opportunity, Not More Policing

The bad news about girls just seems to keep coming, particularly if you pay attention to popular media. Girls are going “wild,” girls are “mean” (and certainly meaner than boys), and girls are even getting as violent as boys. Current media coverage of modern girlhood, at least in the United States, is virtually all grim. It is also clear as to the source of the problem — girls are getting more like boys — and that is bad news for girls.

Despite widespread acceptance of these notions, there is considerable evidence that these ideas are incorrect. They also lead to bad social policy, obscure the good news about girls and distance the United States from the global conversation about girls and girlhood.

Let’s start with the media fascination with “mean” girls. The manipulative and damaging characteristics of girls’ social worlds have been the subject of high-profile best-selling books like “Odd Girl Out” and “Queen Bees and Wannabes.” These, in turn, spawned hit movies like “Mean Girls” and a slew of articles, like The New York Times Magazine cover story entitled, “Girls Just Want to Be Mean.”

Notions of “meanness” rely on psychological categories of behaviors that are intended to harm, but are not physical in nature; instead they rely on covert or indirect behaviors like rumor spreading, ignoring or eye rolling. Some scholars have suggested that while boys tend to specialize in physical violence, girls specialize in these more covert forms of aggression, an idea that the media immediately embraced.

However, the literature on relational aggression does not consistently support this notion. For example, University of Georgia researchers randomly selected 745 sixth graders from nine middle schools across six school districts in northeast Georgia. The student participants took computer surveys each spring semester for seven years, from sixth grade to 12th.

Key findings included the following. First, covert and relational aggression is extremely common; 96 percent of the students who participated in the study reported at least one act of relational aggression (meaning, everyone is mean sometimes), and 92.3 percent of boys and 94.3 percent of girls said they’d been the victim of such an attack at one point during the study period. Second, they found that boys admitted to significantly more acts of relational aggression than girls did. And girls were more likely to be victims.

Finally, and of the greatest significance, of the meanest kids (the ones who fell into the “high” relational aggression group), 66.7 percent were boys and 33.3 percent were girls. So, at least according to this study, the problem is mean boys, not girls.

But what about all the evidence in arrest statistics, in media stories featuring menacing images of “gangsta girls” peering over the barrel of a gun and in social media obsessed with the cheerleader beating up other girls? Are girls “going wild” and closing the gender gap with boys in physical aggression or violence?

Since the 1990s, there has been plenty of official evidence that girls were getting arrested for offenses that were not typically associated with female delinquency (like running away from home). Notably, arrests of girls for simple assault, in particular, soared at the end of the last century; one study of court referrals between 1985 and 2002 found a 202 percent increase in girls charged with “person offense cases.”

And even though juvenile arrests have declined in recent years, girls now comprise a far larger percentage of juvenile arrests than they used to. Essentially, girls have gone from about one juvenile arrest in five (in the ’80s), to one juvenile arrest in three (in 2015). Much of this is due to the fact that arrests of boys, particularly for offenses like simple assault, have fallen more sharply than girls’ arrests for the same offense (47.8 percent compared to 39.5 for girls 2006-15).

Juvenile court and correctional data reveal a similar theme. Since 1990, girls’ adjudications for person offenses have increased by 60 percent, now representing 22 percent of all youth adjudicated on such charges. Likewise, the number of girls in custody for a violent crime has also been on the rise. In 1989, 8,512 girls were in detention for a violent offense; 25 years later, that number more than doubled to 17,730.

What about other data on girls’ violence? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has monitored youthful behavior in a national sample of school-age youth in a number of domains (including violence) at regular intervals since the ’90s. Their data show that more than a third (34.4 percent) of girls surveyed in 1991 said they had been in a physical fight in the previous year, and slightly more than half (50.2 percent) of the boys reported fighting. By 2015, though, only 16.5 percent of girls reported being in such a fight, and boys’ violence was also down, with only 28.4 percent saying they had been in a physical fight.

In essence, the data show that girls have always been more violent than their stereotype suggests, but also that girls’ violence, at least by their own accounts, has been decreasing rather dramatically, not increasing.

To further explore these issues about girls’ self-reported violence and likelihood of arrest, two other professors and I used two national self-report data sets to compare self-reported behavior with self-reported arrests in two different time periods (1980 and 2000). This research found that girls who admitted to simple assault in 1980 had about a one-in-four chance of having been charged with a crime, compared to girls in 2000, who had about a three-in-four chance of arrest. Furthermore, black girls in 2000 were nearly seven times more likely as their 1980 counterparts to have been charged with a crime.

In short, while girls had long reported that they were acting out violently, their arrests did not necessarily reflect that reality. Instead, girls’ arrests tended to emphasize petty and status offenses (like running away from home or being “incorrigible”); by the 1990s, that had changed dramatically, as more girls were arrested, particularly for such seemingly “masculine” offenses as simple assault — and this pattern was particularly pronounced among African-American girls. But these shifts are in the behavior of those who police girls, not the girls themselves.

So what is going on? Misguided school policies (like zero tolerance) and relabeling of girls’ fights with their parents as assault have buoyed the arrest numbers, not changes in girls’ behaviors. And again, the impact has been most pronounced among African-American girls. As a result, in 2013, African-American girls were the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice population, and they were 20 percent more likely to be detained than white girls.

While the media and policymakers in the U.S. have been fretting about policing girls’ meanness (through misguided anti bullying policies), and demonizing girls, particularly girls of color, for their presumed violence, the global conversation on girls has taken a completely different tack. In 2014, Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient (at age 17) of the Nobel Peace Prize, made history.

Malala’s story of triumph over abuse and violence began in 2012, when she survived a bullet fired by a Taliban fighter that caused a massive head injury, and she became an international advocate for girls’ education and peace. She was one of two recipients of the Prize for 2014, sharing it with Kallash Satyarthi, who campaigns for children’s rights in India and has been involved in rescuing trafficked children. They reflect a growing global focus on girls’ rights, especially their right to education and to be safe from abuse, particularly physical abuse, sexual abuse and early marriages.

This international concern about the extensiveness of girls’ victimizations and girls’ rights stands in stark contrast to the discourse on girls in the last 25 years in the United States, where both media and policymakers have been expressing concern (and developed policies) to respond to the growing numbers of “mean,” “bad” and “violent” girls. It is time that the United States joined the rest of the world in advocating for safe childhoods for girls, calling for expanded (and equitable) educational opportunities (building on the impact of Title IX) and offering them the chance for a bright future they deserve.

Meda Chesney-Lind is a professor and the chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was also recently elected president of the American Society of Criminology; her term begins in 2018.

Parole Boards Treat Adolescents Who Grow Up in Prison Like Adults — and That’s Wrong

We know little about the discretionary release decisions of parole board decision-making, especially for juvenile offenders who have been sentenced as if they were adults to long terms of imprisonment, including life. The possibility of parole for juvenile lifers does not mean they will eventually be released. The formal and informal rules governing a juvenile offender’s eligibility for parole are either no different from adults or too vague.

First, we need to recognize that parole boards are at the tail end of the criminal justice system. Unlike criminal court they are an administrative body, often confidential in their deliberations. There is too often no requirement to be transparent. In this sense, parole boards would be considered a “black box” — one that can not only create a profound sense of injustice among offenders, making their rehabilitation less likely, but produce costly appeals.

Yet I believe that the administrative decision-making of parole boards can be improved upon in the case of juvenile offenders: first by recognizing the business of parole boards, which is not only to make judgments about the suitability of an offender’s release, but also to enable offenders to succeed by becoming law-abiding members of society. To enable appropriate assessments at the front and back end of the correctional process, it is important that parole boards recognize adolescence in all its complex developmental forms. I add the word complex, because a standard text on developmental adolescence is not appropriate for incarcerated adolescents subject to long-term adult imprisonment.

For instance, sensitivity to the adolescents who are juvenile offenders would modify state statutory requirements to consider the offender’s reoffending risk and offense seriousness. Offense seriousness and reoffending risk cannot easily be separated from one another, and often fall under the general rubric of offender dangerousness. Despite an offender’s excellent to good prison record (few infractions and having programmed well), offense seriousness (as indicative of offender dangerousness) is often presented as the defining reason for rejecting parole. But offense seriousness should be defined not only in terms of the harm committed, but also in terms of culpability. And in regards to culpability, the jurisprudence is clear: A youth’s culpability should be discounted based on the well-known facts of adolescence.

Still, before the parole board is not an adolescent but a middle-aged adult offender who looks no different from other middle-aged offenders who committed their offenses while adults. Parole boards need help in seeing beyond their cases of middle-aged offenders. They need to look beyond a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that has recognized the adolescence of juvenile lifers — at least in terms of those who were legislatively denied the possibility of parole.

Although the Supreme Court in its Graham (2010) and Miller (2012) decisions cited the developmental literature as reason for recognizing the jurisprudence of adolescence, it did not provide states with the standards for guiding parole board decisions, essentially leaving it to states to decide how they wish to implement the court’s decisions. Some states have created lengthy minimums, and others like California a specific part of their parole boards that explicitly acknowledges their juvenile lifers’ adolescence. Yet the acknowledgment where it exists appears vague and largely symbolic — an extension of merely stating for the record the juvenile’s age at time offense.

A step in the right direction would be to recognize the criminological reasons for juvenile violence, which include childhood trauma, neighborhood violence and familial abuse. The criminological reasons for gang membership as protection against neighborhood victimization would similarly explain why a juvenile or young inmate just entering prison would again join a gang , and again for protection. A capital offense and a life sentence are traumatic in themselves, and may lead to self-destructive behavior that produces a prison record that would not be looked upon kindly by parole boards many years later.

We should expect that over time the stated rules of engagement for parole boards have changed. This is the case in Massachusetts, where the state’s supreme judicial court not only recognized Miller, but also said that it is retroactive. The state’s supreme judicial court also indicated that parole-eligible juvenile lifers should have the benefit of legal representation — a right that is not provided to adults. Moreover, they recommended minimum periods that would provide adolescents with the possibility of returning to society as middle-aged adults.

Still, there is parole board resistance to dwelling on the adolescence of the offender at the time of the offense and to drawing on the developmental literature to explain early prison infractions. That resistance stems from alternative concerns that are raised by the victim, prosecutor and other members of the community, especially in serious cases of violence. The focus becomes on the offense; its sensational qualities, the victim(s) and then how the offense could be considered an indication that a “just” amount of time has not yet been served given the gravity of the crime.

My statements on parole are based on personally observing numerous parole board hearings and viewing nearly 300 videoed recordings, along with transcripts. I’ve not only observed hearings, but also examined in close detail records of decisions for juvenile lifers and compared them with young adult offenders. With Ed Mulvey (University of Pittsburgh) we found virtually no difference between adult lifers and juvenile lifers in their probability of parole, controlling for the severity of their offense and prison infractions. In fact, age was not a predictor of parole. Rather prison infractions, programming and offense seriousness were the only significant predictors after statistically controlling for a range of personal factors.

So where do we go from here? First, we need to understand parole board decision-making in cases of juveniles sentenced in criminal court to long terms of imprisonment—not just life. Many more thousands of juveniles beside those serving life are coming up for parole each year after serving long-term minimums. They are in the adult system from start to finish, and although a considerable amount of research on juvenile offenders has been conducted at the front end of the criminal justice system, there is little that is known about back-end decision-making, as exemplified by discretionary release decisions.

Secondly, states can do more to prepare their juvenile offenders for discretionary release by taking into account the facts of adolescence. They should not assume that just because the juvenile has been sentenced as an adult, they can be treated as an adult offender. A juvenile lifer’s problematic adolescence should not only be recognized first in a juvenile facility (usually the first stop for a juvenile lifer), but also in their subsequent adult prisons. Recognizing their problematic adolescence requires correctional officials to also recognize that the experiences of juvenile lifers are limited to prison life.

At the tail end of the correctional system is the parole board, and here the facts of a juvenile lifer’s adolescence must be explicitly recognized. The facts at this stage of discretionary release should not only acknowledge the adolescent’s limited socialization to life outside their prison. Those facts should also enable a set of treatments, reentry plans that specifically enables a juvenile lifer to succeed while on parole. In this way the upstream as well as downstream considerations that go into making parole decisions can do a better job in fulfilling the Supreme Court’s mandate for a meaningful review — one that takes into account the adolescence of juveniles, especially when imposing long-term maximum adult sentences.

To ignore the black box of parole board decision-making invites costly appeals, extending the cost of incarceration beyond the jurisprudential logic of a modern-day criminal justice system. Eventually states will do well by explicitly recognizing the adolescence of their juveniles and by developing the research tools, programs, procedures and administrative processes that can produce the meaningful review called for by the Supreme Court. My colleague Ed Mulvey and I have been working in this direction. However, we need more states than the few that have been willing to collaborate with us. If you would like to assist us in our research, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Simon I. Singer is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University. His current book project is titled “Adolescence Denied: Juvenile Lifers in America.” He has received awards from the American Sociological Association (Albert Reiss Book Award, 1999, for “Recriminalizing Delinquency: Violent Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Justice Reform”), and from the American Society of Criminology (Hindelang Book Award, 2014, for “America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia”). He can be emailed at s.singer@northeastern.edu.