Juvenile Female Offenders and Gender-Specific Services:
A Historical Overview

Early Profile of the Adolescent Female Offender

Before the mid-1960s, most formal discussions of juvenile offenders and the juvenile justice system did not include data on the juvenile female offender. For example, in his 1955 book on gang delinquency, Albert Cohen goes as far as to describe the delinquent as "a rogue male" (Cohen 1955, cited in Chesney-Lind 1989, p. 6). However, interestingly enough, during the 1960s and 1970s there was an increase in female delinquency, causing researchers to notice and begin to track female offending patterns for the first time. For instance, between 1960 and 1975, arrests of juvenile female offenders rose 254 percent, causing concern that the country was experiencing a fundamental new phenomenon of female crime (Chesney-Lind 1979, p. 53).

A profile of the typical juvenile female offender from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s is as follows: she is described as someone who is approximately 16 years old, lives in an urban area in a single-parent home, is a high school dropout who lacks adequate work and social skills, and has been the victim of sexual and/or physical abuse (Bergsmann 1989, p. 73). This population of young women could be found involved mainly in status offenses (offenses that are illegal only if committed by a juvenile) and minor delinquent acts. Consider the following picture of female crime in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • In 1977, status offenses accounted for 27 percent of all female arrests. This figure was still 25 percent in 1986 (Chesney-Lind 1989, p. 9).

  • In 1977, arrests of young women for serious violent offenses (murder, non-negligent manslaughter, robbery, forcible rape, and aggravated assault) accounted for only 2 percent of all female arrests. This number also remained fairly constant, with violent offense arrests accounting for 2 percent of all female arrests in 1986 (Chesney-Lind 1989, p. 8).

  • In 1977, arrests of young women for larceny theft made up 27 percent of all female arrests, making it the most common delinquent offense among young women. This number dropped to 26 percent in 1986 (Chesney-Lind 1989, p. 8).

  • Young women made up 14 percent of all juveniles in custody in 1985 and represented 52 percent of all status offenders (Bureau of Justice Statistics 1986, cited in Bergsmann 1989, p. 74).

  • In 1985, status offenses accounted for 35 percent of all young women's cases in the juvenile court while only accounting for 10 percent of young men's cases (Snyder et al. 1989, cited in Chesney-Lind 1989, p. 8).

Early critics of the juvenile justice system response to female offenders cited discrepancies in the reporting and processing of both female status offenses and delinquent acts. For instance, according to several studies in the 1980s, when arrest statistics were compared with male and female self-report data on involvement in status offenses, young women appeared to be overrepresented in their arrest rates (Chesney-Lind 1989, pp. 9-10). In other words, females were arrested at a higher rate for status offenses than were males. The results of other studies in the 1980s showed that females were often underrepresented in every arrest category except for status offenses and larceny theft when compared with self-report data on delinquent behavior (Chesney-Lind 1989, p. 10).

Juvenile Female Offenders: A Status of the States Report October 1998