What's the matter with Florida?

A study finds that the state has one of the highest juvenile detention rates for girls.

Published July 20, 2006 8:55PM (EDT)

A study (PDF) released on Tuesday by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that Florida's juvenile justice system "locks up a higher percentage of underage girls than 46 other states, hands out stiffer punishment to girls than boys and doesn't provide the kind of treatment girls need," the Orlando Sentinel reports.

The study found that on any given day there are roughly 1,530 underage girls locked up in Florida, with two-thirds in long-term residential treatment facilities and the rest in detention centers. This is the biggest study ever of an all-female juvenile offender population, the Sentinel reports, and the Oakland, Calif.-based council hopes that the results will push the Florida Legislature to allocate more funds for girls' treatment.

Especially because it seems unlikely that girls are actually behaving worse than their male counterparts. The council determined that the Florida juvenile system has fewer alternatives for girls than it does for boys. One researcher told the Sentinel, "a girl is locked up longer and in a more restrictive facility than a boy even if the girl commits the same offense, the crime involves the same level of violence and she has the same number of prior arrests." Because of a lack of options, judges often end up handing down more severe sentences to girls than they would if a more diverse spectrum of interventions existed.

Of 319 girls interviewed, the study found that 49 percent were self-mutilators, 34 percent had attempted suicide, 35 percent were or had been pregnant and 46 percent had alcohol- or substance-abuse problems. If these figures are representative of the entire juvenile population, young women in Florida deserve treatment and rehabilitation centers, not lengthy sentences in prison environments where they are unlikely to have their needs addressed. The council report recommends that girls' treatment options include "specialized mental health services; substance abuse treatment; family focused services; specialized medical care; alternative, educational and vocational services; and traditional placements and services for girls."

A spokeswoman at the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, which has not yet seen the report, issued a statement saying that "at DJJ, we're committed to serving the unique needs of girls in our care." That's a nice thing to say, but the council and an organization called the Children's Campaign Inc. have found that "Florida officials have not been willing [to rehabilitate the system] on their own." We hope the surprising results of the study and the persistence of these organizations will push reform into high gear.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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