Dressed in a baggy T-shirt, cotton pants and runners with long wavy hair falling around her shoulders, she looks like an ordinary teenager.Yet because of her crime she spent her sweet sixteen birthday locked up in one of British Columbias closed custody units for youth. Janice which is not her real name because the Young Offenders Act prohibits publication of a youths identity is incarcerated for her part in the brutal murder of 14 year-old Reena Virk in November 1997, an event that shocked the country and prompted Bad Girl headlines coast to coast. What made this case so unbelievable was that seven out of eight of the teens who participated in butting out a cigarette on Virks forehead, and punching and kicking her until she was dazed and bleeding, were girls. (Chislom, 1997)
Many people believe that because of incidents like this, there must be a major problem with our female youth and crime today. Although this was an extremely heinous crime are female youths really becoming more violent and more capable of murder? Are crimes committed by young females catching up to the number of crimes committed by young males? These are questions sought and researched by many individuals and groups in Canadian society as well as all around the world. No matter what the numbers are today of crimes committed by young females, the crimes they commit are still significantly lower than that of their male counterparts. However, there is an increase of young female offenders and it is becoming more recognized by the media and society. Female offenders commit relatively fewer severe crimes than males, they are less likely to recidivate, and yet although the Young Offenders Act abolished status offences, young women are treated differently by the courts compared to youthful males.
In general, both young males and females have the same factors which may lead them down the path to commit crime. Many adolescents who are involved in crime had histories of family dysfunction, school problems, such as, truancy, learning disabilities, failure, and conflicts with teachers. As well, young offenders are quite often found to be involved in drug and/or alcohol abuse, have delinquent peers and/or belong to a gang. Personal risk factors are also a big issue when dealing with the profile of a young offender. If a child shows anti-social behaviour, frequently runs away from home and/or is a very hyperactive child, then criminal activity, although it may not always be the case, could be another behaviour to surface from the individual child. Compared to males, young females are much more likely to turn crime if they have been a victim of physical and/or sexual abuse (Corrado et al., 2000, p. 144).
Although a young offenders profile is very similar for both males and females, girl offenders differ from their male counterparts in several ways. Criminal activity by girls and young women tend to begin and end at a younger age (Reitsma-Street, 1993, p. 440).In a 1997 study the percentage of accused youth between the ages of twelve and thirteen, 22 percent were females, 15 percent were males and between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, 43 percent were females and 36 percent were males. However, after the age of fifteen female youths accused of a crime dropped drastically and while males being charged escalated.Also, young females are two to five times less likely to get involved in more serious crime than are young males (Savoie, 1999).
Of all the Canadian kids who killed between 1961 and 1983, 89 percent were male and 11 percent were female (Meloff & Silverman, 1992) Figures revealed by Statistics Canada (1995), 36 Canadian youths were charged with homicide. Of these 36 charged only three were females.A major gender difference is shown in the number of youth charged with homicide.Statistics Canada (1995) also revealed that 61 boys and 9 girls were charged in the same year with attempted murder. This raises the question as to whether or not the rates of homicide and attempted murder have increased in the last several years. Contrary to the belief of many people, they have not. Dealing with young females Dell and Boe (1997, p. 24), found that from 1992 to 1994 girls charged with homicide has remained fairly constant compared to the previous several years. Compared with young males charged with these crimes form between the same years, boys committed ten times as many homicides and approximately eight times as many attempted murders than girls. Even though females are not nearly as murderous than the boys, male youth homicide has also remained stable throughout the years (Sinclair & Boe, 1998, p. 27).
Meloff and Silverman (1992, p. 27) found that young females rarely commit homicide during the process of committing another crime, such as, theft or break and enter. For instance, between 1961 and 1983 only 3 percent of girl killings were committed during another crime compared to 25 percent of the young male homicides.
Although murder and murder related crimes are very serious offences, they only make up 3 percent of all crimes committed by Canadian girls and compared to their male counterparts murder is far less frequent.On the other hand, female assault crimes account for almost 20 percent of all female youth crime (Corrado et al., 2000, p. 197). Many people look at these figures and believe that young women are becoming more violent. According to Statistics Canada (1995) 9,275 youths were charged with violent offences in 1986. By 1996 that number tripled to 21,811. Female youths were charged with 1,728 violent crimes in 1986. By 1998 the number was up to 5,191, an increase of 200.4%. This increase may be shocking, but it still does not compare to the number and severity of violent crimes committed by young males.Doob & Sprott, said it best in their 1998 that for girls there has been increases in minor assaults and no increase in the most serious assaults. In general … girls are less involved than boys in all levels of assualt, particularly, the most serious forms. (p. 185) Further, according to Carrington (1995, p. 68), the increase in assault charges laid from 1994 to 1997 on girls were
likely the result of police officers, teachers, and the general public taking a more punitive approach to incidents that were normally dealt with informally.
The Young Offenders Act deals with three levels of assault for young offenders. Level one being the least serious and level three being the most. The major difference between girls assault levels and levels of assault charges for all youths is that for girls, there has been an increase in the number and rate of middle level assaults. This increase is nothing to overlook, however, compared to young males, these boys are committing a much larger number of level three assaults than are girls. Furthermore, the number of assaults young males commit in general for outweigh those girls commit by the thousands (Doob & Sprott, 1998, p. 190).
Many people in our society associate people who commit violent crimes with drugs. Since 1987, the number of young Canadian males and females charged with drug offences has extremely increased. In 1997, the young male rate was 35 per 10,000, while the female rate was 6 per 10,000. This was a 42 percent increase for boys and a 50 percent increase for girls in a ten year period. (Stevenson et al., 1998) Still, as is the case for assault, theres a major gender gap in the rate of youths charged for drug offences and the percentages given of the rate of increase for both males and females are deceiving. As people look at the percentage increase of female youth crime from these statistics or statistics alike, they come to believe there must be a significant problem with the young girls today. However, when looking more closely at the numbers, in this case, only two more girls per 10,000 were charged with a drug offence(a 50% increase). The boys showed a 42 percent increase, appearing to have better rates than the females; but in reality fifteen more boys per 10,000 were charged with a drug offence (Stevenson et al., 1998).
If girls involved in drugs is a minor issue of female crime today, then the same can be said about property crime. The most common types of these crimes committed by Canadian girls and boys is theft, break and enter, and motor vehicle theft. This is one area of female youth crime where the number of offences is not that unnoticeable. Property crimes account for 23.8 percent of all offences committed by females. In 1998, there were just under 12,000 females charged with a property crime out of a total of 54,047 youths charged (Corrado, et al., 2000, p. 197). One aspect to look at is the severity of these property crimes by young girls. Along with boys, the most common crime is theft (and for girls mainly just shoplifting small items). However, the male theft rate is more than doubled that of girls, as well as, the male break and enter and motor vehicle theft rate which is ten times higher (Stevenson et al., 1998, p. 29). Once again juvenile girls are a small portion of the crimes committed. There were a little more than 40,000 property crimes committed by males in 1998 which is approximately five times greater than those committed by girls (Corrado et al., 2000)
Out of all the youth court cases in Canada, the most common were crimes of this stature. In 1994-95, almost half of the cases dealt with property crime (Jones, p. 158). In dealing with all youth crime, the youth courts have not necessarily treated young females with any more leniency compared to young males since the implementation of the Young Offenders Act Boritch, 1997). Of all dispositions given, the most common for both females and males is probation. In 1996-97, males were more likely to receive custodial sentences and a fine, and females were more likely to receive community service and an absolute discharge (Stevenson et al., 1998). in general, as Marge Reitsma-Street (1993) states in her article Canadian Youth Court Charges and Dispositions, juvenile girls appear before the court with fewer charges than males. It takes less for a female offender to be brought to court than a male young offender.Reitsma-Street also mentions,
… charges for breaches, non compliance, failure to appear, escapes, and broad against the YOA breaches of section 26 are increasing rapidly in the later 1980’s.These charges are increasing at a much faster rate for female than for male youths and are the major reasons for the total increase in charge rates against girls after introduction of the YOA …
By 1991, one in four charges laid against young females in youth courts are against the administration of youth justice. Over one-fifth of Canadian female youths in secure or open custody were charged with violations against administrative rules. It is difficult to understand why twice as many young females are in custody for breaking administrative rules than for either serious or minor assaults (p. 453).
Despite the fact that the Young Offenders Act abolished status offences, which are behaviours that if engaged by adults, would not be designated as crimes, they have not really disappeared.In fact they have merely been reclassified into other categories, such as order maintenance offences and administrative offences. (Boritch, 1997) These offences, as well as, the prior status offences under the Juvenile Delinquents Act (JDA) include behaviours such as truancy, immorality, running away from home and violations of liquor laws (Reitsma-Street, 1993, p. 454).Reviewing status offences from the JDA period, boys were less likely than females to receive a custodial sentence for crimes related to this type of offence and girl status offenders were incarcerated for longer periods of time than were boys who committed the same offences (Boritch, 1997).With the elimination of status offences it would be a logical assumption that the number of young females in custody today would be lower than it was at the end of the JDA era. According to Reitsma-Street(1993), this is not the case. After 1984, custody increased at a steady pace from 6.7 percent in 1984-85 to 12.7 percent in 1988-89. Improvement is nowhere in sight. Further, from 1991-92 to 1994-95, more young females wee sentenced to open custody facilities, while less serious dispositions, such as fines, absolute discharge, restitution and community service orders dropped in numbers during the same time period (Dell ; Boe, 1997).
Although more females receive custodial than males for status (administrative) offences, after the introduction of the Young Offenders Act male youths admitted to custody facilities, in general, has increased immensely compared to females. The custodial rate for males increased from15.5 percent in 1984-85 to 22.6 percent in 1990-91 (Reitsma-Street, 1993, p. 450)Reitsma-Street (1993) also contends that
the gender inequity in custodial dispositions has increased, not because the rates have gone down for females, but because more male young offenders are sent to custody. Before the YOA was introduced, one female received a custody sentence for every five to seven males; by 1990, that ratio had changed to one female for every eight to twelve male young offenders. (p. 450)
In relation to all sentences given under the YOA, specific gender differences are no longer as obvious as they were under the JDA (Reitsma-Street, 1993, p. 453). A study by Kueneman and Linden (1992), for example, indicated that females were less likely to receive a harsher disposition than males. Carrington and Moyer (1995) found that the reason why the criminal justice system may be more lenient toward females is due to the result of females being more likely to have been found guilty of serious offences than males and to be less likely to have a criminal record.
Examination of recidivism indicates in research that young female recidivists are, in general, less likely than their male counterparts to receive a custodial disposition. For male youth, dispositions involving custody is 24 percent compared to 11 percent of all dispositions with females.Differences in the way males and females are treated in youth court cannot be accurately determined and findings such as these do not show the nature of the offence or the offenders characteristics (Dohery ; deSouza, 1995).Doherty and deSouza also mention,
… that 44% of male youth were repeat offenders compared to 33% of females. In addition, statistics for 1995-96 show that females were convicted for more minor infractions than their male counterparts. This included charges for the following: theft under $5,000 (26%) and minor assault (15%). In contrast, males represented 18% of those convicted of theft under $5,000 and 10% of those convicted of minor assault.
As well, in 1995-96 Canadian Statistics indicated that males were twice as likely to be continuous offenders, with three or more prior convictions, than were females. Only 5 percent of females had three or more prior convictions compared to 11 percent of males (Kowalski ; Caputo, 1999, p. 66) The statistics also revealed that 8 percent of young female first-time offenders were given a custodial sentence compared to 48 percent of who had three or more prior convictions. Males on the other hand, 14 percent of first-time offenders received a custody sentence compared with 67 percent of males who had three or more previous convictions. Male and female repeat offenders who were found guilty of three or more convictions were both more apt to receive secure custody. Of male repeat offenders with three or more convictions, 42 percent received secure custody compared to 25 percent who were given open custody. With not much of a difference, females with three or more convictions, 25 percent received secure custody compared to 24 percent who were given open custody (Kowalski ; Caputo, 1999, p. 66).
However, the young offenders gender has no effect on the initial relationship between the number of previous convictions and the seriousness of the disposition. Overall, the results indicate that female offenders often receive less custody dispositions than male offenders and that, in general, they are less likely to recidivate (Kowalski ; Caputo, 1999, p. 66).
Young female offenders have been shown to be the minority of all youth crime. Although female crime may be slightly on the rise, the number of crimes they commit are dragged in the dust behind the number of crimes committed by young males. Despite horrific news of some teenage girls being violent, in reality, the majority of Canadian young females are not, and compared to young males, girls are not nearly as violent.The meanings, contexts, and motives of female violent crimes and other offences differ from that of young males and their crimes are usually extremely less severe. Further, Canadian female young offenders commit mostly property crimes, especially shoplifting. Males commit more expensive property crimes and they do so with a much greater frequency. Youth court cases deal with property crimes the most by all young offenders. Although the YOA eliminated status offences, young females are still charged more for these crimes, which have been reclassified, compared to male youths. In general, male young offenders receive many more custodial sentences than do females and the recidivism rate is much higher for males than it is for females. Many people believe that female young offenders and youth crime is beginning to be a major problem. It may not be an issue to simply ignore, but reality of it is that female youth crime has remained fairly stable over the last several years and the concern is overly exaggerated.