Girls, Gangs, & Crime — Profile of the Young Female Offender
By Lianne Archer, CSW, CASAC, and Andrew M. Grascia
Social Work Today
Vol. 5 No. 2 Page 38
Many female gang members are exiled from violence to more violence.
The latest research on female gangs and female arrest statistics indicate a rise not only in violent offenses but also in the willingness of law enforcement to view women as violent offenders. This shift in attitude by law enforcement within the last decade is a long-overdue awakening.
Ironically, it may be through this willingness to view the female as a dangerous entity in and of herself that the juvenile female offender may finally begin to receive the help she so desperately needs.
Females have traditionally been viewed by law enforcement as “accessories,” “appendages,” “mirrors,” or “satellites” to male gang activity, and in many jurisdictions they are not even counted as gang members (Curry & Decker, 1998). This reluctance has been explained by the tendency of some jurisdictions to qualify an offense as being “gang related” only if the offense was committed by an actual gang member (Moore & Hagedorn, 2001). Behind this distinction is the bias that violence is not naturally feminine.
The fascination with a “new” violent female offender is not really new. In the 1970s, a notion emerged that the women’s movement accounted for a surge in women’s serious crimes, but this discussion focused primarily on an imagined increase in crimes of adult females, usually white females. More recently, however, the discussion has turned to the young females’ commission of violent crimes, often in association with youth gangs.
Females have not been thought capable of committing “male crimes” for reasons that often arise from law enforcement and society falsely accepting gender stereotypes as valid: viewing the female as the weaker and gentler gender; believing that females, no matter how ill-treated, are incapable of violence. This underestimation of the anger and devastation resulting from physical, emotional, and psychological violation affects the services available for females at-risk, thus costing valuable time in meeting the needs of young girls, saving their lives, and thwarting the surge of violence by female gangs. Understanding the potential of young females for violence means understanding the catalysts that drive these adolescent girls to become violent offenders.
Is the Female Offender a Victim First?
In 2000, the highest percentage of juvenile female arrests occurred between the ages of 13 and 15 (Snyder, 2002). It is hard to imagine that young girls at such an impressionable age would be placing themselves in situations that lead to arrests. The truth is, young girls are running from abusive and negligent homes, have nowhere to turn, and many have few options. A 1998 National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) study of girls in the California juvenile justice system revealed that 92% of the interviewed juvenile female offenders had been the victims of “some form of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse” (Acoca, 1999; Acoca & Dedel, 1998). These girls were reported to have been “beaten, stabbed, shot, or raped” at 13 and 14 years old, with a median age of 13 for sexual assault/activity and 14 when they became victims of a shooting or stabbing and/or delivered their first child (Acoca, 1999; Acoca & Dedel, 1998). In a special report by the Office of Justice Programs titled “Women in Criminal Justice: A Twenty Year Update,” national statistics further support the above findings by showing that one in four girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused (1998).
These traumatic experiences are viewed by academics and practitioners as the reason for clear correlations between victimization and serious drug abuse (Acoca, 1999; Acoca & Dedel, 1998). Because mood-altering drugs aid in dulling the pain of traumatic experiences, it is believed to be the combination of trauma and drug influence that places these young girls in the uncomfortable position of engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as unsafe sexual practices and gang involvement (Acoca, 1999; Acoca & Dedel 1998). Chesney-Lind, Sheldon, and Joe have noted that female juveniles represent an estimated 6% of gang members (1996); recent statistics and research indicate this number is climbing even higher.
Why Do Young Females Join Gangs? According to Hirschi (1969), who studied delinquent behavior and the social bonds that control delinquency, those with close bonds to social groups and institutions (eg, family, school) are the least likely to become delinquent. The following four major elements constitute the social bond:
• attachment, which refers to one’s connection (mostly of an emotional kind) to groups, family, peers, and school;
• commitment, which is the “investment” one makes in conventional society;
• involvement, seen as one’s participation in traditional activities, such as going to school, working, and participating in sports; and
• belief, which refers to an acceptance of basic moral values and laws.
Hirschi’s research found that youths who had the strongest attachments were the most committed, had the strongest belief in conventional moral values and the law, and were the least delinquent.
Female delinquency in the early part of the 1990s reflected a curious resurgence of interest by girls engaging in nontraditional masculine behavior—notably, joining gangs, carrying guns, and fighting with other girls (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, p. 31). Peer relationships, in fact, appear to be one of the most significant determinants of female gang membership. Joining a gang may be a conscious and deliberate decision that often involves considering several alternatives: losing friends vs. keeping them or belonging to a group vs. being an outsider.
To some degree, gangs may serve an adaptive function by providing the basic means of survival in a threatening environment. Young females may become involved in gangs because of past experiences of victimization or the fear that they may be victimized in the future. Ironically, some young females may find that the only way to protect themselves from gangs in their neighborhoods is to become affiliated with gangs. Still others become gang members through relationships with male gang members, or being “beat in,” “sexed in,” or “born in.” Frequently, young females have been arrested for carrying weapons for their “boyfriends,” providing them alibis and even holding, transporting, or distributing narcotics for them.
In a number of studies, it appears that family relationships play a relatively modest role as a motivator for female gang involvement. Instead, affective characteristics (such as low self-esteem or poor interpersonal relationships) may have a larger influence on a young female’s decision to join a gang than father absence, family poverty, or parental control.
For some young females, gang involvement may draw the attention, albeit negative, of emotionally distant parents, while for others, gangs may provide refuge from unsatisfactory home environments or the opportunity to act out violent behavior patterns learned within the home. Others view gang membership as a way to get respect.
Despite the inherent difficulties of tracking this growing phenomenon of females in gangs, books are nonetheless being written on the subject. In Locas, Yxta Maya Murray talks with two females who are surrounded by gang culture. Although they are not members of a gang, it becomes apparent that these females are involved in the gang world and are seen throughout the book assisting the gang and its members in committing various crimes. In 8 Ball Chicks, Gini Sikes writes about females in gangs and the criminal lifestyles they lead. Sikes’ book introduces readers to female gang members growing up “in the hood,” gang members who have killed, and gang members who explain not only why they joined a gang but also, chillingly, why they would die for it.
In June 2001, ABC News reported that while gang membership was down nationally in the United States, the Justice Department was alarmed about a growing problem: female gang membership. ABC News maintained that girls are “catching up with boys in this one area,” “joining gangs for the same reasons as the boys,” and involved in the same activities as boys: selling drugs and committing murder. The same story that opened with a proclamation of how overall gang membership was on the decline—as low as 20% in some areas—closed with a fear that the drug-selling, violent gang member—female gang member—is “everywhere” (Gibbs, 2001).
On February 23, 1992, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story subtitled “Troubled Girls, Troubling Violence” that asserted the following:
Girls are committing more violent crimes than ever before. Girls used to get in trouble like this mostly as accomplices of boys, but that’s no longer true. They don’t need the boys. And their attitudes toward their crimes are often as hard as the weapons they wield. While boys still account for the vast majority of juvenile crime, girls are starting to catch up (Santiago, 1992, p. A1).
Lastly, NBC News broadcast a story on its nightly news with an eye-opening observation:
Gone are the days when girls were strictly sidekicks for male gang members, around merely to provide sex and money and run guns and drugs. Now girls also do shooting… The new members, often as young as twelve, are the most violent… Ironic as it is, just as women are becoming more powerful in business and government, the same thing is happening in gangs (NBC, 1993).
These stories are only a few examples of the many media accounts that have appeared since the “liberation hypothesis” that linked female (social) equality to young females’ participation in gangs.
The Female Path to Juvenile Injustice According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999, Women Offenders:
• Sixty percent of females under correctional authority report that they were physically or sexually assaulted at some time in their lives.
• Sixty-nine percent reported that the assaults happened prior to the age of 18.
• Thirty-two percent reported that they were abused by a family member, relative, or intimate acquaintance.
• Twenty percent of female offenders have spent time in the foster care system.
• Fifty-eight percent grew up in homes without both parents present.
• Thirty-four percent grew up in homes where the parents abused alcohol and/or drugs.
Recent national data show that girls are more likely than boys to be referred to the court system by sources other than law enforcement agencies (eg, parents, school) for behaviors such as running away, truancy, and incorrigibility. Similarly, it is the status offenses, as opposed to the actual crimes, that usually bring young females into the juvenile justice system. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the young female offender currently represents the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system, with 645,000 arrests of females under the age of 18 nationwide in 2001 (Juvenile Arrest Statistics, 2001).
Many girls who enter the juvenile justice system come from unstable home environments or violent home lives and enter the system as runaways trying to escape abuse. It is often this initial status offense that introduces them to the juvenile justice system (Office of Justice Programs [OJP], 1998). In 2000, the percentage of arrests for female runaways was 59%, with 39% involving juveniles under the age of 15 (Snyder, 2002). Exactly what percentage of these runaways suffered physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at home is unclear, but what is clear is that these girls, in their will to escape, are determined to survive. For some, the thought of being arrested and taken somewhere where they will be better cared for may be a welcoming one. In fact, the reality they face is far harsher.
Once in the juvenile justice system, these girls continue to be subjected to abuse and/or humiliation. In fact, “abuse reportedly experienced by girls from the point of arrest through detention include the consistent use by staff of foul and demeaning language, inappropriate touching, pushing and hitting, isolation, deprivation of clean clothing … [and] strip searches … in the presence of male officers” (Acoca, 1999). These occurrences are common and routine and further reinforce the lasting impressions of abuse already endured by these young girls.
The Cyclical Nature of Abuse It is common knowledge that adult abusers are often victims of childhood abuse themselves, but what Widom has documented in her at-risk prevention study as the ramifications of such abuse is truly alarming (1992). Widom finds that neglect and abuse as a child increases the likelihood of juvenile arrest by 53%, arrest as an adult by 38%, and committing a violent crime by 38%. If we as a society want to stop the violence by females, then we must realistically look toward preventing violence to the female.
According to an article in the Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin titled “Prisoners in 2002,” the years 1995-2001 saw a rise in the population of violent offenders, which accounted for 49% of female state prisoner growth. The article goes on to report that “the number of female prisoners increased 4.9%—double that of men, 2.4%—during 2002” (Harrison & Beck, 2003). Researchers Acoca and Austin interviewed women in prison to determine their common characteristics, and the OJP (1998) interpreted their findings as follows:
• 72.2% of the women experienced one or more forms of emotional abuse.
• 67.5% had experienced one or more forms of physical or sexual abuse as children.
• 31.1% of the women reported that they had been raped or sodomized as children, of
which 11.3% had been victimized more than five times or repeatedly.
• 45% reported having been beaten or physically abused in another way as children, with
35.8% having experienced it more than five times.
These statistics further warrant the need to address the underlying issues of why and how the underlying raw emotions of young abused females erupt into violence.
What Are the Factors That Put These Girls At Risk?
Risk factors include the following:
• high rates of physical and sexual abuse;
• severe drug addiction;
• low academic and employment achievement; and
• chronically dysfunctional and abusive families.
All these factors cause severe trauma and dramatic short- and long-term effects in victims, which manifest in behaviors such as fear, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, and inappropriate sexual activity.
The lack of a stable home life or the presence of a violent one is a contributing factor in why young women become violent (Weiler, 1999). The case files of the girls involved in the aforementioned NCCD study found that “95% of the girls were assessed as lacking a stable home environment, and 11% had experienced or witnessed the death of one or both parents or a sibling” (Acoca, 1999). Other factors mentioned throughout female gang literature include, but are not limited to, poor academic performance, threat of victimization in neighborhoods, a need to belong, a desire for a sense of family, efforts to obtain what would otherwise be unobtainable, and a search for some sense of power and importance. In many ways, gangs promise the structure of a family, a well-defined role, and a purpose.
— Lianne Archer, CSW, CASAC, is a senior social work evaluator for the Lexington Center for Recovery with the PINS Diversion Program/Westchester County Department of Probation in White Plains, NY.
— Andrew M. Grascia is a criminal investigator with the Westchester County district attorney’s office in White Plains, NY.
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