Gender Bias in the Florida Juvenile Justice System

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More female juvenile offenders (FJO) are entering the Juvenile Justice System (JJS) than ever before. Public reactions attribute this influx to female youth becoming more criminal, however, evidence suggests that gender bias contributes to it, through harsher sentences and defaulting to confinement for FJOs.

In this study I aim to examine the evidence suggesting gender bias in sentencing, including differences between male and female juvenile offenses, the degree of leniency for juvenile male and female offenders, the origin and implementation of gender bias, the implications on youth in Florida, and finally a retrospective comparison of male and female juvenile offenders’ view sentences and experiences in the JJS.

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Research indicates that gender bias does exist in the sentencing of juvenile offenders. FJOs are consistently arrested at lower rates than males yet more female juveniles are entering the juvenile justice system annually at younger ages and for more serious offenses (Morris and Gibson, 2008). One explanation is the change in arrest policies for family conflicts that involve juveniles, those which did not hold juveniles as accountable before. From 1985 to 2015 (OJJDP) delinquency among males has decreased, while female delinquency cases have increased by 47% from 19 to 28% of all delinquency cases.

The types of crimes do juvenile females commit differ from juvenile males, as well as their introduction to crime. Females generally are less delinquent, less violent, less committed to criminal careers (Pasko and Chesney-Lind, 2010). FJOs are more often are affected by histories of trauma, prostitution and sexual misconduct are very common, and many have run away from sexually abusive homes most involving status offenses while they sometimes do become involved in property, drug, sex, and violent crimes (Chesney-Lind, 2004).

The Juvenile Justice System’s response to female delinquency and gender differences in the growing incidence of crime among young women and girls, ironically reflects patriarchal orientations. (Chesney-Lind, 2004) Much of the origin of gender bias is unfounded, based on gender stereotypes like limiting the options of an FJO, for their own good. This is reminiscent of sending girls to convents as a means of securing them. The stereotype that female youth are more mature than their male peers and therefore should be held more accountable for their offenses could also fuel bias in the JJS. Are female offenders more deserving of harsher sentences? Does confining FJOs for their own protection work as a deterrent? The answer is that it does not, based on the stagnant crime rate among FJOs.

FJOs have been treated more harshly than in previous decades, a significant change in leniency for female offenders can be attributed to the Get Tough Movement which also inspired more use of the Juvenile Direct File in the state of Florida. I predict that former juvenile offenders, male and female, would view their experience in sentencing and time in the JJS differently. Whether or not programs that were geared more toward the causes of gender-specific delinquency were offered as an alternative to confinement may mark a difference, as well as their rehabilitation into society, or recidivism if it occurred.

Crime is declining in all areas except FJOs, unaffected by the increase in their incarceration. Recognizing and preventing gender bias is the first step to reducing FJOs entering the JJS unnecessarily. The school-to-prison pipeline can start around age 7-8 in Florida, with a record that can follow a lifetime, eliminating gender bias would reduce unnecessary incarceration and the hindrances that follow.

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