ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The juvenile justice system is locking up fewer American kids than it used to, but the proportion of girls is going up. That's the finding of two new studies. One examines this gender gap in Texas and concludes that girls are locked up longer than boys for less serious offenses. Erin Espinosa is the lead author of that study. She is also a former juvenile probation officer. Welcome.
ERIN ESPINOSA: Hey. Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: How large a gap did you find between girls and boys in the juvenile justice system?
ESPINOSA: What we're seeing right now is that, although, as you said earlier, the overall juvenile arrest rates are dropping across the country, the rate for female offenders is staying at right around 20 to 25 percent, which is actually an increase from the earlier rates of around 18 and 19 percent in the late '90s. So most girls come into the system for low-level offenses like running away from home, skipping school, smoking cigarettes on campus. Those girls, once incarcerated, actually stayed about 12.5 percent longer in confinement than their male counterparts.
SHAPIRO: Why would girls be kept behind bars longer than boys?
ESPINOSA: Well there's a lot of people that theorize about this. Not a lot of research has been done. A lot of people are trying to figure that out. But what we can suppose is is that girls tend to be more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse or other domestic violence. And so what some have postulated is that, you know, the things that a girl did to keep her safe when she was in the community no longer work once you're locked up - so running away from a sexual abuse situation, skipping school to feel safe. So all that's left is fight. Or, more likely, the juvenile justice system doesn't know what to do. They don't want to release the girl back to the home that may be part of what got her there to begin with.
SHAPIRO: From your experience as a former officer in the juvenile justice system, do you think people in the system are aware that the girls in these facilities are, in many cases, victims in addition to perhaps committing these low-level offenses that got them into the juvenile justice system?
ESPINOSA: What I can tell you is that I could've very easily been one of those statistics. I was in a situation when I was 16 and 17 where I found myself in a place where I had to, in my mind, run away from home. There was no place for me to be in the small town in North Texas where I grew up. And luckily for me, though, I was friends with the sheriff's department, so when I got called in for a runaway, when my mom said, look, she's not home, I don't know where she is, the sheriff deputy would find me, pick me up and take me someplace where I was safe. And ultimately, you know, six, seven months later, I moved back home. But if this had been my life in Houston, Texas, or Baltimore City and/or if I were a youth of color, I'm not sure the outcome would've been the same.
So as a juvenile probation officer, when I had to make that choice, knowing that once she went back that I'd probably see her again in 48 hours for a more severe offense - a fight with her mother, running away with a guy in a stolen car, or something of that nature. So do we take a kid who's doing something that's not really criminal and put her behind bars just to protect her? I'm not sure if that's the right answer, but for most of the juvenile justice system, that's really the only one they've got right now.
SHAPIRO: What do you think needs to happen so that more teenagers have experiences like the one you had, rather than being locked up?
ESPINOSA: What I would say is we need to think about how the systems interact with each other. How do the schools interact with the police department? How do the police departments interact with families? And, you know, we've gotten into this systematic response where frontline responders try to take all the responsibility on themselves. And it takes a true system of care to coordinate around our youth and families that are at risk, to treat them in a way that's cheaper to the public and also has better outcomes for the kid and the family.
SHAPIRO: Erin Espinosa is a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. Thank you for talking with us.
ESPINOSA: Thank you for having me.
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