‘Bolster’ Black Boys, but Don’t Forget About Black Girls

Bernardine Watson, Washington Post, August 5, 2013

President Obama, in his remarks after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, asked what we could do as a nation to “learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?” One of his thoughts was to “spend some time thinking about how we bolster our African American boys.”

Many, especially in the African American community, agree with him. In fact some see the Martin case as an opportunity for a national discussion about young black males and the justice system. Certainly a national focus on young African American males is overdue, particularly given their over-representation in the delinquency system. However, as we look for strategies to “bolster” black boys, it’s important to acknowledge that African American girls are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system, and need just as much attention.

recent report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) shows that while males still dominate the justice system, the caseload for girls has grown significantly—from 20 percent of all juvenile arrests in 1980 to 30 percent in 2009. Girls of color make up nearly two-thirds of the female juvenile justice population. {snip}

Experts agree that the increase in girl offenders over the past several decades is not due to a “girls gone wild” phenomenon. Girls still commit far fewer violent crimes than boys. More girls are ending up in court because of policies and policing practices such as zero tolerance in schools and state statutes against domestic violence that now encompass minor-age victims and offenders and result in mandatory arrests. Also, according to a study by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy, girls are far more likely than boys to be detained for non-serious offenses such as truancy, running away and underage drinking or technical probation violations, such as missing a meeting with a probation officer or violating curfew.

Given the statistics, race is clearly a determinant in which girls get arrested and enter the system. Troubled African American girls and other girls of color often live in heavily policed neighborhoods and attend schools that enforce zero tolerance policies. These girls are more likely to come to the attention of law enforcement than white girls. Studies show that girls of color tend to benefit less from leniency and diversion programs and generally receive harsher punishments than white girls for similar offenses. Some researchers and advocates speculate that these differences in treatment may result from negative stereotypes that police and court officials have about girls of color, which can influence decision-making.


Much needs to be done to raise the visibility of African American girls in the justice system and the issues they face: their disproportionate numbers, harsher treatment and the lack of services to meet their needs.  Yes, it would be wonderful if the country were to focus on troubled black boys. But we shouldn’t forget about black girls.

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