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Critics say justice system fails girls

Race was a much-discussed factor, as was ethnicity, the influence of the mass media, dysfunctional families and peer pressure.

But during a three-day conference here last week on juvenile violence and the justice system, gender was rarely mentioned. This despite statistics that show girls are commiting crimes in increasing numbers across the state.

"Girls who come in contact with the justice system are really one of our most vulnerable groups," said Shirley Thrasher, a researcher from Wayne State University who spoke at the conference. "We have paid virtually no attention to them, as far as who these girls are and what their needs are. Theories of criminology have totally ignored girls.

"And when it comes to girls of color and ethnicity, (research) is totally nonexistent," Thrasher added. "They're invisible when it comes to our knowledge in this area."

LaWanda Ravoira coordinates a statewide program designed specifically for troubled girls. She said the state and nation have shown no commitment to understand girls who get into trouble with the law. Few programs are designed to deal with them, she said.

"We're trying to put girls into a male system that doesn't even work for males," Ravoira said.

Juvenile crime statistics show that males still commit the vast majority of offenses, especially violent crimes. More than four times as many juvenile males were arrested in 1991.

But more girls are being arrested.

Although juvenile girls tend to be arrested for less serious offenses such as running away, possession of alcohol and truancy, more are being arrested for stealing cars, burglarizing homes, assaulting people and committing murder.

Advocates say the dearth of programs for female offenders may be a factor in two troubling trends.

First, girls are more likely to be incarcerated for running away, truancy or ungovernability because there are few options other than jail.

In 1987, fewer than half the females confined in public training schools and detention centers nationally were there for the most serious category of crimes.

Second, girls who commit less serious offenses are not getting the help they need and are going on to more serious trouble, advocates contend.

"Girls run away, and then when you're on the street how do you make money?" said Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, who has been involved with juvenile court in Pasco County for several years. "When you get involved in prostitution or drugs, the crimes are getting more serious."

Ravoira's PACE program, or Practical and Cultural Education, opened its first facility in 1985 in Jacksonville. There are now seven programs throughout the state where girls can get counseling and earn academic credits.

Many of the girls who attend the program have been convicted of crimes. Some have dropped out of school, while others have been victims of sexual abuse.

Ravoira and Tepper agree that because of the trends they see in the backgrounds of female offenders, programs should be designed specifically for girls. Female delinquents are more than twice as likely to be the victims of sexual abuse than boys, and for a longer period.

"We have not fully addressed the needs of girls in programs," Tepper said. She said there also is a lack of programs for boys, but "there are more options for boys."

Tepper said she has been working with officials at the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services "trying to establish a commitment program for girls" so that as a judge she can have a place to send troubled girls.

Tepper said the program might be loosely patterned after a successful program in Pasco County whose name underscores the juvenile justice system's failure to pay attention to girls.

The program is called the San Antonio Boys Village.

Juvenile arrests in Florida


OFFENSE 1990 1991 1990 1991

Murder 196 174 10 14

Forcible sex offenses

_Rape 345 423 3 0

_Sodomy 124 124 4 4

_Fondling 221 220 9 11

Robbery 2,718 3,051 153 177

Aggravated assault 4,496 4,657 949 1,012

Burglary 10,126 11,622 733 847

Larceny 17,231 19,719 7,754 8,639

Motor vehicle theft 5,062 5,649 529 631

TOTALS 40,519 45,639 10,144 11,335

Source: Florida Department of Law Enforcement