K-State sociology professor studies girls in the juvenile justice system

09/23/04

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- The needs of girls and girls' experiences have been pretty much ignored in the juvenile justice system.

That's the view of L. Susan Williams, associate professor of sociology at Kansas State University.

"Most of the crime is committed by boys, and most of the system has responded to boys and boys' experiences," she said.

Recently, she's been working on part of a project called "The Going Home Initiative for Re-entry of Serious Juvenile Offenders" to try to improve the system for girls.

Williams said her role in this specific part of the project has been that of a consultant. Most recently, she interviewed incarcerated juveniles with a focus on girls from rural areas. Williams said one of the main things they're interested in involves the different needs of girls and boys.

"A prime example is that there is only one juvenile prison for girls in Kansas, while there are several for boys," Williams said. "If there's a girl from Kansas City or the upper northwest or bottom southeast corner of Kansas going to prison, she's going to Beloit. The boys can be much closer to home and can have visits more often, but girls can be very isolated from their families."

Williams said they are hoping to add to the knowledge of what youth, most specifically girls, need while incarcerated and how to best reintegrate them into society.

"We have a lot of programs for them while they're in the facility, but going back home is a really critical point," Williams said. "They are sometimes thrown back into the same unhealthy environment that helped get them there in the first place. We're really interested in how to insulate them in a healthy way that will give them a healthy environment when they go back home."

Williams said not only is there a difference in the needs of boys and girls, but a difference in the way their offenses are treated and punished.

"Boys and girls run away from home about equally, but girls are reported more," Williams said. "So when a girl runs away, she's really a bad girl, but when a boy runs away, we say 'boys will be boys.'

"Boys also usually commit much more serious crimes," she said. "Overall, girls are treated more harshly for doing the same things or lower-level offenses. And girls generally stay in custody longer, because our tolerance is much lower for girls to get into trouble."

Williams said one reason this research is important is to aid with juvenile justice system reform.

"The system and everyone who works in it are looking at equality -- it must be equal, it must be fair, it must be just," Williams said. "They're interpreting equality to mean 'the same,' but girls and boys are not the same. They don't have the same needs and they didn't get there the same way. It's not always responsive to the unique needs of adolescents in general and certainly not to the unique needs of girls."

Williams presented her most recent findings Aug. 14 to the Society for the Study of Social Problems at the American Sociology Association Meetings in San Francisco.

Williams completed her doctorate in sociology from the University of Connecticut in 1997. She earned her master's in sociology in 1990 and her bachelor's in 1988, both from Texas Tech University, summa cum laude.

Going Home is an ongoing project funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice, Delinquency and Prevention. Delores Craig-Moreland, associate professor of criminal justice at Wichita State University, initially received the grant and is the primary investigator.

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