Proposition 21: What About the Girls?

by Julie Posadas, J.D.
As the public debates whether to punish or protect young offenders, often lost in this discussion is the plight of girls in the juvenile justice system. Since the majority of youth arrested are boys, it’s not surprising that Proposition 21 was designed to address the criminal experiences of young men. Current research on female juvenile delinquency shows that girls not only enter the criminal system for different reasons than boys, but once in the system they spend more time in custody and receive less rehabilitative services than their male counterparts. Since the Initiative does not provide prevention services, the negative impact it may have on female juvenile offenders may be worse than we realize.
As a direct result of laws like Proposition 21, the increased criminalization of young women has made them the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system. Research on female juvenile delinquency shows that the overwhelming majority of girls in the juvenile justice system are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Abuse in a girls’ background highly correlates with her delinquent behavior. According to several studies, girls who report sexual abuse were more likely to get pregnant, be depressed, smoke, drink alcohol, and use drugs. A girl’s pathway to drug addiction often leads her to sell drugs, steal, trade sex, and prostitute to support her habit.
Once a young woman enters the juvenile justice system, additional problems emerge. According to a March 1992 study of female juvenile offenders, girls have so few prevention services that they often become chronic users of the juvenile system. Without prevention services such as counseling, mentoring or academic tutoring, many girls end up returning to juvenile hall on probation violations rather than new criminal charges. Whereas boys are given more prevention and intervention services such as anger management and rites of passage programs, a young women is often ignored until she has racked up enough probation violations and/or new criminal charges to place her in a group home or juvenile detention facility. Since many girls end up running away from these establishments, they are often pulled into criminal activity in order to survive on the street.
Since girls in the current juvenile system often receive more punishment than prevention, their plight resembles what would happen to all youth if Proposition 21 became law. There are also specific provisions in the Initiative that would not only bring more girls into the criminal system, but also keep them there for life. Girls tend to commit crimes that are relationship-oriented, meaning they will hold drugs and guns, steal, sell drugs, and prostitute for a boyfriend (usually an older man). By working in concert with men and boys, girls will be more vulnerable to conspiracy charges and being labeled as a gang member. Proposition 21 will increase the amount of girls entering the adult system for violent crimes. Because it provides no prevention funds, this Initiative will both severely reduce the small percent of rehabilitation services that currently exist for girls, and negate the overwhelming need for innovative new programs that could truly make a difference. Faced with these significant obstacles, if a young woman is successful in leaving the juvenile system, without confidentiality of her juvenile records, it will be much harder for her to find employment, get accepted into college, and turn her life around.
In order to protect girls from the prison industrial complex, it is imperative that we increase the quality and quantity of early intervention services. Prevention programs are estimated to be at least twice as effective and significantly cheaper than “3 strikes” laws designed to increase incarceration. These programs must be gender-specific in addressing all the diverse and complex issues girls in trouble face. Families, whenever possible, must be included in these services. By investing in programs promoting life skills, cultural awareness, counseling, tutoring, mentoring, employment opportunities, etc., we will not only save the lives of young women, but future generations to come.
Julie Posadas, J.D. is a prevention specialist with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. She teaches law to youth detained in San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall and advocates for victim services and the rights of girls in the juvenile justice system.