Understanding the female offender

Elizabeth Cauffman
Future of Children 2008, 18 (2): 119-42
Although boys engage in more delinquent and criminal acts than do girls, female delinquency is on the rise. In 1980, boys were four times as likely as girls to be arrested; today they are only twice as likely to be arrested. In this article, Elizabeth Cauffman explores how the juvenile justice system is and should be responding to the adolescent female offender. Cauffman begins by reviewing historical trends in arrest rates, processing, and juvenile justice system experiences of female offenders. She also describes the adult outcomes commonly observed for female offenders and points out that the long-term consequences of offending for females are often more pronounced than those for males, with effects that extend to the next generation. She also considers common patterns of offending in girls, as well as factors that may increase or decrease the likelihood of offending. She then reviews what is known about effective treatment strategies for female offenders. Female delinquents have a high frequency of mental health problems, suggesting that effective prevention efforts should target the mental health needs of at-risk females before they lead to chronic behavior problems. Once girls with mental health problems come into the juvenile justice system, says Cauffman, diverting them to community-based treatment programs would not only improve their individual outcomes, but allow the juvenile justice system to focus on cases that present the greatest risk to public safety. Evidence is emerging that gender-specific treatment methods can be effective for female offenders, especially when treatment targets multiple aspects of offenders' lives, including family and peer environments. But it is also becoming clear that female offenders are not a homogeneous group and that treatment ultimately should be tailored to suit individual needs defined more specifically than by gender alone. Despite myriad differences between male and female offending, many of the primary causes of offending, says Cauffman, are nevertheless similar. The most effective policies for reducing juvenile crime, she argues, will be those that foster development in a safe and nurturing environment throughout childhood. Cauffman concludes that female offenders are likely to require continued support long after their direct involvement with the juvenile justice system.

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