Stricter law enforcement results in more girls' arrests, not rise in violence
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
University Park, Pa. -- Recent arrest data suggest that girls are "going wild" by engaging in more violence, similar to that committed by boys, but a Penn State researcher says additional surveys contradict that idea and that policy changes in law enforcement have been the most influential factor in the trend.

"The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) has reported a rise in the arrest of girls for assaults and violent crime from 1980 through 2003, from 20 percent to more than 30 percent of total acts," says Darrell Steffensmeier, professor of sociology and criminology at Penn State. "But other national sources of information on youth violence do not support that increase. Several changes in violence prevention policies by police or at schools have widened the net, boosting the arrests of girls."

Steffensmeier and other researchers reviewed data from 1980 to 2003 from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) and National Youth Risk Behavior Surveys and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), where the victim identifies the perpetrator's sex.

For example, the MTF self-report data covering the 1990s show that levels of assault for young females and males have been fairly constant, and female involvement has not increased compared with male violence.

From 1980 to 2003, the UCR data show that the percentage of girls arrested for assault (combined figures for aggravated assault and simple assault) rose from 20 percent to more than 30 percent; the NCVS victimization data show up-and-down swings over the same period but with the female-to-male percentage of assaults averaging about 22 percent in both the 1980s and 1990s. The female percentage was 20 percent in1980 and 19 percent in 2003.

"These non-arrest sources all show little overall change in girls' level of violence over the past one to two decades and constancy or very little, if any, change in the gender gap of youth violence," the researchers note. "These highly regarded scientific survey sources involve national samples from the general youth population and are independent of criminal justice biases."

"Some commentators have blamed the perceived change on greater stress in girls' lives, more cultural promotion of girls' aggression and breakdowns in family, church, community and schools," says Steffenesmeier. "But today, police are more prone to arrest girls because of a crackdown on less serious forms of 'violent' crime that is seen as a way of warding off their escalation into more serious violence."

Steffensmeier presented the research at the April 8 conference of Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Justice Educators. He and his colleagues have presented their findings at a recent American Society of Criminology conference and published an article in a 2005 issue of the journal Criminology. He is preparing a chapter for U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention's Girls Study Group that will provide a more detailed analysis of girls violence and delinquency trends.

Litigation concerns on the part of parents, social workers, school officials and police also have pushed them to pursue an arrest instead of dealing informally with girls' aggressive behaviors as might have been done in the past, according to the researchers. More attention on girls' violence also is being paid by the media and more advocacy groups with special interests in girls' delinquency and violence.

"A change in perceptions and expectations about girls' violence might itself have "self-fulfilling" effects leading to higher reported levels of girls' violence in survey responses," the researchers say.

Girls' lives may have changed a great deal but not necessarily in ways that lead to more aggression, the team adds. Because girls tend to internalize stress, an increase in stress would more likely lead to more depression, eating disorders, suicide or drug use, according to other research.

It is possible that subgroups of girls may be seeing an increase in violence, but more research is needed to compare violence trends among girls and trends between girls and boys, using a variety of data sources.

"It is important to realize that girls' arrests for homicide, robbery, and rape/sexual assault have not been rising and that there is little change in the gender gap. It is only girls' arrests for assault that have been rising but all the other sources of data that we have -- based on victims' reports and youth self-reports -- show girls' assault levels not rising and the gender gap staying essentially constant," Steffensmeier notes.

"Girls are more likely to be arrested today than yesteryear for fighting with their parents or stepparents, teachers or other supervisors, and with other girls," he adds. "Police files show that actions such as a girl throwing a dish at her mother or pouring a carton of chocolate milk on a girl at school for 'talking about her,' now result in arrests."

Broader changes in law enforcement, research prevention sector, the women's and victims' movement and law-and-order politics have contributed to more elastic definitions of violence and the expanded use of police and the courts to resolve disputes and curb violence. While these policies may hold youths "more accountable," they will result in more arrests of young girls than expected, the study says.

  Vicki Fong