Victims' Rights Caucus

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Colo. programs target fastest-growing criminal segment: teen girls
By Colleen O'Connor
The Denver Post
Posted: 10/20/2010 01:00:00 AM MDT
Updated: 10/20/2010 08:56:47 AM MDT

Guadalupe Herrera was an eighth-grader at Skyview Middle School, a tough girl with attitude and a gang wardrobe, when she learned another girl was spreading rumors about her. One day, she walked by the girl, who pointed at her and began whispering.

"I said, 'If you've got something to say to me, say it to my face,' " said Guadalupe, who turned and walked away. "I wasn't even 5 feet away from her when she said, 'That psycho border-hopper.'

"It was like a spit in the face," Guadalupe said. "I was born and raised here. I'm just as American as she is. My blood zoomed up. I started shaking."

Guadalupe's violent reaction, which ended with her arrest after pummeling her tormenter on a field outside the school, made her
part of the fastest-growing criminal segment at both the state and federal levels: teenage girls.

"I hit her hard, with everything I had," Guadalupe said. "I was bombing on her."

In Colorado, while overall violent crime by girls has gone down, the number of assaults such as Guadalupe's fistfight has gone up about 5 percent a year since 2001, said Lisa Pasko, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver.

Pasko has just completed a two-year study of violent middle-school and high-school girls in Colorado's juvenile-justice system, funded by a grant from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, to find out how best to reduce the number of girls in the system and prevent recidivism. The report, scheduled to be presented to the state's Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Task Force on Dec. 1, shows a spike in the number of girls in the system.

Between 2003 and 2006, the commitment rate for girls ages 12 to 17 increased 52 percent, while the detention rate increased 28 percent. Commitment is long-term incarceration, similar to prison, while detention is for shorter terms, like a county jail.

The trend is also seen nationally. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of girls arrested for common assaults rose 12.2 percent, while boys' arrests for the same crimes fell 5.8 percent.

"Some girls are saying that their lives are harder, and they're using violence as a strategy," said Pasko, who spent time with serious offenders. "There is more disconnection, more moms on parole or partnering with a guy who is not good or who is volatile."

Tailor-made program

In 1996, Colorado became one of the few states to create gender-specific guidelines for girls in the juvenile-justice system, a comprehensive approach centered on female development and how girls learn.

A 2008 U.S. Department of Justice report cited as its most significant finding a "lack of reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information about good prevention and intervention programing for girls." The report went on to state that most of the programs "had not been evaluated to the degree that they could be considered 'effective.' "

"The demand for these services is greater than ever," said Jeanne Smith, director of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. "As a state, we're trying to reduce recidivism . . . and a part of that is recognizing the demographics of offenders in the system, which has shown an increase in female offenders."

Girls learn differently from boys and are motivated by different things, so lowering the recidivism rate for girls depends on helping them in ways that work for them.

"Girls that come into the