We need to change the way the justice system treats non-violent female offenders.
The amount of women in juvenile detention centers has increased dramatically over the past few years. Young women who have committed non-violent crimes or status offenses, such as truancy, are entered into the system and faced with experiences that will likely negatively change their life.
According to Linda Lowen, who writes about juvenile justice and women’s issues for About.com, 92 percent of women have experienced physical, sexual and, or emotional abuse. If emotionally distraught women are forced into juvenile detention centers, their psychological distress will likely worsen.
In her blog, Lowen said the juvenile justice system was originally designed for boys. Girls who enter the system usually suffer from self-esteem issues, depression and body-image disorders.
“Female juvenile delinquency is often a cry for help,” Lowen wrote on About.com in September 2011. More gender-specific programs need to be created to address the problem.
Woodland Hills attorney, Ellen Levin, believes there needs to be changes made within the system.
“The justice system needs to have a better system in place to rehabilitate juvenile women from non-violent offenses, rather than place them on detention where they will be exposed to both hardened and violent juveniles,” said Levin.
In 2009, ABC News gave television viewers an inside look at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where young adults were detained for offenses ranging from truancy to murder.
The living quarters were anything but luxurious, with detainees living in a cell that was 7 by 14.5 feet.
The walls were narrow and the atmosphere was far from encouraging.
The center offers programs and classes for juvenile delinquents to take, but these programs have not always been successful in helping the troubled youth. Some juveniles have returned to the center more than 15 times.
However, not all juvenile detention centers are like Cook County’s.
Kendra Varney, a sophomore studying criminal justice at CLU took a trip with her class to a facility in Oxnard. What she expected to see was a prison, but what she saw was fairly pleasant.
“I was very surprised to learn that the juvenile facility was very different from a jail in my opinion. The paint on the walls had a more pleasant scheme to them with paintings by the juveniles,” said Varney.
Varney said that this facility also offered vocational programs for the juveniles to help them find something they might be interested in.
Varney also believes that a jail and a juvenile detention center have very different purposes.
“A jail is to punish a criminal while a juvenile facility is to rehabilitate them into society,” said Varney.
While some centers, like the center in Oxnard, may have a positive atmosphere, others like the one in Cook County don’t get the job done.
Perhaps the issue is more about what we can do to help the original problem. If young women are struggling emotionally, having been through abuse or trauma, we should address that first.
Junior Jade Gurule, a communications major at CLU, believes that we need to do more to help these women, not hurt them.
“If schools and communities had more programs for young women going through difficult things, like abuse or self-esteem issues, maybe they would feel as if they have a place to go, not a place to run away from,” said Gurule.
Levin also believes that since public schools have been forced to cut programs such as art and music, kids have no creative outlet and nowhere to turn.
So what happens if we don’t encourage change? Levin thinks the consequences will be detrimental if these issues are not addressed.
“Juvenile women will likely commit worse crimes as adults and continue a life in the system,” said Levin.
I think as a society, we need to be more aware and determined to help young women find their place in society before they end up at the point of no return.
Published Nov. 7, 2012