BY TOM ALEX
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
October 24, 2003
Youth advocates want to change Iowa’s juvenile court system, and they’ve focused on a simple premise: Girls should be treated differently from boys.
Some experts say the idea is outdated, potentially expensive, and built on a shaky foundation. Others view the change as critical to rehabilitation for a growing number of young women in the legal system.
In Iowa in 1980, 3,965 girls were arrested. That number had jumped to 6,740 by 2000.
Arrest rates for boys during the period were steady and had even dropped slightly heading into this decade.
Girls need programs and institutions geared specially, and exclusively, to them, advocates of change contend. They point to the Iowa Juvenile Home/Girls State Training School in Toledo, which has 68 beds for delinquent girls and 32 for boys.
“It would be more effective if we had all females on campus,” said superintendent Bob Eppler. “We make our best effort to make it gender-specific, even though we do have boys on campus.”
More girls now answer for crimes they don’t commit, experts say. For example, a girl is quicker to switch seats after an auto crash, then take the fall for a boyfriend’s marijuana in the car.
The crimes girls commit are driven by different factors, advocates of a change say. Thus, girls require a new approach to punishment and reform. Boot camps might work for boys, advocates say, but the one-gender-fits-all system needs a new coat of paint, and the color should include more shades of pink.
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Kathy Nesteby of the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women says juvenile rehabilitation was designed long ago with boys in mind.
Programs often focus on achieving goals, she said. “You achieve so much and you move up. Eventually you get to leave when you reach the top level. . . . Boys do better in that environment. You stick a girl into a system like that and if she feels like she can’t develop decent relationships with the staff or peers, it’s not going to matter to her if she reaches that goal,” Nesteby said.
Brian Boyer, director of Polk County Community Family and Youth Services, which oversees the county youth shelter and detention center, says it’s been politically incorrect in recent years to point out differences in boys and girls, but “if you’re going to be honest, you have to say there are differences – many differences.”
“One of the hot topics in juvenile corrections is gender-specific programming. A key component of that is a reduction of in-your-face confrontation with girls,” Boyer said. “Girls just get mad and stay mad if they think they are going to get more confrontation. With boys, confrontation can still be an effective tool.”
Wholesale changes rarely come at wholesale prices. Facilities and programs that are strictly for girls would carry a price tag that neither side of the debate has determined.
“If we can figure out a way to separate the boys from the girls at Toledo, I think we should do that. But I don’t know where that ranks in terms of priorities,” said state Rep. Gene Maddox, R-Clive, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “If we had the money, I think there are a lot of things we would do differently.”
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A leading authority on youth crime says the gender-specific approach is little more than a trend. But Finn-Aage Esbensen, a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, says the trend”seems to be building its own momentum.”
“The one thing I hear from people supportive of “gender-specific” or “girl-specific” programming, as they go through a litany of risk factors for girls, is that you could say the same for boys and it would be equally true,” he said. “A growing number of feminist criminologists with whom I am familiar are not supportive of gender-specific programming.”
Iowa is not the only state to consider broad changes aimed at delinquent girls:
* Oklahoma has established goals for so called “at risk” young women that include a task force to identify and propose policy, legislation and recommendations. Researchers will first develop a statistical profile of juvenile female offenders.
* Michigan has a five-year plan called “It Could Be Anyone’s Daughter.” The goal is”self-reliant, educated and healthy” young women “who break the cycles of fear and violence.”
Juvenile officials in Iowa say a good first step would be to take the boys out of the Toledo training school. The waiting list generally includes the names of 40 to 70 girls. That number would be a lot higher, Eppler said, but court officers portion out admittance carefully. Once a girl gets in, she is not kicked out early to make room for others.
“The research that our juvenile justice system was based on was on boys,” Nesteby said. “That’s because boys are the majority in the juvenile justice system. There was no malicious intent, necessarily, but boys have been the vast majority in the system. So everything is geared around what they need.”
State Sen. Jeff Angelo, R-Creston, will be key to the debate in Iowa. He is vice chairman of the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, which holds the purse strings that determine whether “vision statements” and task-force reports turn into real changes.
“We haven’t really been talking gender-specific issues yet. Our main focus has been on specific populations, specific offenses,” he said. “Gender-specific treatment is a new topic.”
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Nesteby says it’s all about relationships.
Not only do girls see relationships differently, she said, they respond to treatment based on those views.
“If a girl is being questioned about a car theft, she won’t roll over on the boy. The boy will roll over on the girl,” she said.
Gwen Seward Lewis, a juvenile probation officer in Polk County, said relationships are often at the root of the crime – and the rehabilitation.
While boys much more commonly assault strangers, “a lot of assaults involving girls are on their mothers, or their grandmothers,” she said.
“Usually it’s some kind of fight that has built up and Mom has crossed the line, too,” she said. “But when police come, Mom knows when to shut up. The girl doesn’t.”
Juvenile court isn’t the best place to solve those family issues, she said, because “the system places the whole thing on the kid.”
“A positive relationship is what gets it done. Not boot camp,” she said. “Girls almost always hurt themselves or their family, not the public. They almost never use guns. Their fights are often related to something someone said.”
Arrests of juvenile girls in Iowa jumped nearly 14 percent from 1998 to 2000, statistics from the state Department of Public Safety show. Girls now commit about 30 percent of juvenile crimes in Iowa, and there are signs of an increase in aggressive behavior:
* Porsha Allen, 17, pleaded guilty of robbery and assault last year in the carjacking and slaying of a Des Moines man.
* Marisol Zenteno-Cayetano, 17, was put on probation earlier this year for the hit-and-run death of a 63-year-old woman outside a Des Moines flower shop.
* Shantelle Mundell-Fry, 16, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for vehicular homicide in the death of a Des Moines nurse who was dragged to death while trying to stop fleeing burglary suspects.
* A 14-year-old Storm Lake girl stands accused of molesting as many as four boys at a child-care center last summer.
* Heather Begey, 19, of Muscatine has appealed her 2001 conviction on vehicular homicide charges filed after she took her stepfather’s car and drove away with him clinging to the hood. He fell and later died.
According to Department of Justice juvenile crime statistics, the rate of violent crimes perpetuated by females has more than doubled, and the average age of offenders is dropping. But Nesteby says there are other factors at work.
“Zero tolerance policies in the schools didn’t exist years ago,” she said. “The behavior of the girl maybe hasn’t changed that much, but the response to her behavior has.”
Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Youth Justice Program at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., says a juvenile is a juvenile, a crime is a crime, regardless of gender.
“If it’s important to do something for girls, why is that not important for boys? Relationships? It seems just as important that boys have strong relationships,” he said. “Boys may tolerate in-the-face techniques, but males may respond just as well to a compassionate approach.”
Butts said the juvenile court system has already altered the way it approaches girls.
“Willingness to arrest them and bring them to court has changed,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we were more paternalistic. That disparity, which was favorable to young women, has decreased.
“Young women now are paying full freight for their crimes.”
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