Journal Issue: Juvenile Justice Volume 18 Number 2 Fall 2008
Understanding the Female Offender
Elizabeth Cauffman, of the University of California–Irvine, explores the topic of female offenders, a portion of the juvenile offender population that has not been subjected to a good deal of systematic empirical study. Indeed, as noted, Cauffman's article stands in contrast to the others, in that the author cautions against making broad policy changes until more evidence is available. Although it is indisputable that the juvenile justice system is now processing relatively more females than it has in the past, neither the causes of this change, nor its implications for policy and practice, are at all clear. Researchers do not know, for example, whether girls are committing a bigger share of crimes now than in the past or whether they simply are being policed and prosecuted more aggressively, either of which would shift the relative balance of boys and girls in the system. As to whether female offenders need a different mix of services than male offenders, the evidence is equally muddy. The few studies of risk factors for offending that compare male and female juveniles, which Cauffman reviews, do not suggest sweeping gender differences in the causes of crime, and research on whether females benefit relatively more from gender-specific programs than from generic ones is virtually nonexistent. There is no reason to think, for instance, that female offenders would benefit any less from effective family-based interventions than would male offenders, given the strong evidence of the contribution of family dysfunction to delinquency among both genders. It does seem, however, that mental illness may be a relatively greater problem among female than male offenders, a conclusion also reached by Thomas Grisso in his analysis of the overlap between mental illness and juvenile offending. That finding may indicate that female offenders may need more services than male offenders, if not necessarily different ones.