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Making Progress?

Sherman says reforms needed to protect female juvenile offenders

12/13/12
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BC Law School faculty member Francine Sherman recently presented her research on female juvenile offenders to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Melissa Beecher | Chronicle Staff

Published: Dec. 13, 2012

When the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation gathered recently to discuss the issue of minority over-representation in US prisons, Law School faculty member Francine Sherman was on hand to present her latest research, which argues that gender is one of the most important factors influencing the treatment of juvenile offenders in the criminal justice system.

At the Washington, DC, event, Sherman spoke about her findings — which she published in an article for the UCLA Law Review titled “Justice for Girls: Are We Making Progress?” — that laws on domestic violence and runaways often wind up having a much harsher effect on girls than boys.

“Our laws don’t say it’s ‘X’ for boys and ‘Y’ for girls. In fact, the laws look, on their face, like they are gender neutral. The same statute, the same criminal law applies to boys and girls. But, because the experiences of boys and girls are different, because societal views of them are different, the impact of these laws are different,” said Sherman during a recent interview. “Certain laws have a much harsher impact on girls than boys — and inappropriately so.”

Sherman — a visiting clinical professor who directs the Law School’s Juvenile Rights and Advocacy Project — said that speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation was not only an honor but an opportunity to bring her work to the attention of a wider audience.

“Because the juvenile justice system looks gender-neutral on its face, gender disparities in practice can be hard for jurisdictions to see. Knowing what to look for is a critical first step.

“After all these years of representing girls and working with jurisdictions to help them be more effective in working with girls,” Sherman continued, “I find the most critical issue is that girls’ experiences of violence — intimate partner violence, violence in their homes and sexual exploitation — drive them into the juvenile and criminal justice system not as victims, but as perpetrators or mischaracterized criminals.”

As an example, Sherman points to mandatory or pro-arrest provisions in many states’ domestic violence laws, which were enacted to remove adult male batterers from the home but have had unintended consequences for teenage girls.

“What we have found in our research is that teenage girls are disproportionately swept up by these laws, that require them to be charged or detained when they are having fights with their mothers,” she said. “In one jurisdiction we worked with, while girls represented 20 percent of detentions overall, they were more than 40 percent of detentions for domestic battery.

“From what we know, girls are more likely than boys to have conflicted relationships at home and to engage in fights with their mothers or siblings. Because of these mandatory and pro-arrest laws, these family incidents are treated as crimes.”

Similarly, since girls comprise a majority of the runaway population — as much as 75 percent, according to one study — they are more likely to be affected by laws and policies that mandate secure placements for runaways.

These policies, Sherman said, point up the need for “good data” — more comprehensive and nuanced studies and analysis — on juvenile offenders to help inform practices in law enforcement, criminal justice and political systems, and to help improve laws and practices.

“Arrest statistics do not measure crime, they measure arrests,” said Sherman. “That is an important difference.”

There are important economic ramifications to the treatment of juvenile offenders, she notes: “It is much more costly to detain or incarcerate a youth in a secure facility than it is to address their needs in a community setting.”

Sherman has been a consultant to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative on strategies to reduce the detention of girls. The Principal Investigator of the Massachusetts Health Passport Project (MHPP), Sherman is also co-founder and president of the Board of Artistic Noise Inc., with branches in New York City and Boston, programs that work with youth in the justice system.

Her new research project will profile young women who grew up in the juvenile justice system in three major cities across the country. Sherman will use documentary-style photography, along with qualitative research methods, to help tell the stories.

To find out more about Sherman’s work and to read her research papers, see http://bit.ly/THIKgW.