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Texas judges, grappling with a shortage of gender-specific programs for female juvenile offenders, have begun to look at Florida, a state with the fastest-growing female juvenile offender population in the nation, for ideas about how to handle girl criminals. “We’ve heard about what they are doing in Florida, and it’s intriguing,” says 323rd District Court Judge Jean Boyd who presides over juvenile cases in Tarrant County, Texas. The state’s startling rise in female juvenile crime has put Florida in a position of needing to push for new ideas. In the past 10 years, the number of girls referred for delinquency has jumped 67 percent in Florida, according to the Florida Department for Juvenile Justice. During the same period, the delinquency referrals of boys rose 25 percent in the state. One of every four juvenile offenders is a girl in Florida — roughly twice the percentage of Texas. In the wake of the rise, Florida has used state funds to support some of the most progressive and the most punitive programs in the nation for female juvenile offenders. “We have it all,” says Polly Ryan, a deputy court administrator for what’s known as the Girls Court, part of a group of specialty courts in Escambia County, Fla. The Girls Court, which Ryan helps administer in Pensacola, Fla., is a novel program. Begun as a pilot project in 1998, it now has an all-girl juvenile docket of about 45 offenders a year. “The objective of the program was to meet the needs of the rising number of girls with programs that help them not return,” Ryan says. The circuit judges in Escambia County pushed for the special court, Ryan says. The judges offered to devote their evenings once a week (on Thursdays) to establish a court exclusively for girls. One Department of Juvenile Justice probation officer handles all the cases from the court, and therefore she is more familiar with the programs available for girls, Ryan says. The objective is to reduce recidivism, Ryan says, and, so far, the county has been pleasantly surprised by the results. The court has led to decreased costs for the county and a reduction in repeat offenders, she says. In April 2002, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice opened the doors on the first maximum-security facility for female juvenile offenders — one of only a handful in the nation. The 100-bed facility offers each of its residents a concrete block cell furnished with a bed; the residents are allowed to adorn it with only two pictures of family members. Inside are girls who have committed serious violent crimes, including car jackings, aggravated battery or manslaughter. NOT TYPICAL “Life here is nothing like that of a typical teenage girl,” according to the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Web site about the new facility. “The girls are not typical either.” Despite the state agency’s touting, the maximum security prison, known as the Florida Institute for Girls, has drawn criticism as an overly harsh, ineffective and expensive way to curb juvenile crime among girls. “I was really depressed to learn about it,” says Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stitch of the Harvard University Public School of Health. The Harvard professor, who has studied juvenile crime extensively, believes that society is better served if young offenders are offered more therapeutic rather than punitive programming. Locking up the girls is unquestionably expensive. It costs $125.52 per day or $45,815 a year for each delinquent girl, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. By comparison, girls housed at state residential facilities run by the Texas Youth Commission, cost taxpayers about $35,000 a year. As an alternative to prisons for girls, Natalie M. Schaible, the development officer and special projects manager of PACE Center for Girls Inc., believes her nonresidential program, teaching academic and life skills, offers a more productive and less expensive way to curb crime among girls. The PACE Center, funded largely by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, started in 1985 as a basement program for five girls. Based in Jacksonville, it now has 19 schools across the state with 1,000 students at a per-day/per-year cost of less than half of that of a maximum-security prison. “We have had tremendous success,” says Schaible, noting that 90 percent of PACE students never return to the juvenile system. The school takes in girls 12 to 18 years old, who are considered at risk for entering the juvenile system or who already have been charged with crimes. “We try to honor the female spirit and create a gender-responsive environment,” Schaible says. In practical terms, the program director says that means spending a lot of time and hiring the staff to listen to the girls. Troubled girls, unlike their male counterparts, Schaible says, need to talk about their problems. At least 70 percent of PACE students have been victims of violence or witnessed violence, Schaible says. While most programs for girls copy male-based programs, she says, they handle matters differently. If a PACE student disturbs a whole classroom by standing on a desk, screaming and getting all of her peers to follow suit, her counselors would deliver some punitive consequences. But the PACE teachers, Schaible says, probably would spend more time complimenting the girl about her leadership skills, using praise to turn her around. Notes Schaible, “Working with girls is much more time consuming.”

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