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Have Girls Really Grown More Violent?

More and more girls under 18 are being arrested for violent crimes. They're still far less likely than boys to get picked up for things like robbery and assault. But the gap is narrowing. That's led to the perception that girls have become much more violent in recent decades. But as NPR's Jonathan Hamilton reports in Part Three of the series Girls and the Juvenile Justice System, experts on juvenile crime have another theory.

According to Meda Chesney-Lind, a nationally known criminologist at the University of Hawaii, the perception that girls have grown out of control dates back to the 1990s. At the time, some experts were predicting an explosive increase in violent young criminals. Those predictions seemed to be backed up by newscasts and talk shows featuring girl gangs.

Several best-selling books about female aggression added to public concern. And government statistics show violent girls are a growing problem. During the 1990s, the rate at which girls were charged with assault rose by more than 70 percent — even as the rate for boys began to fall. But experts say these statistics are a bit misleading. The number of girls who actually kill someone each year hasn't changed much in decades. And there's been only a small increase in girls who commit an assault that involves a weapon or causes a serious injury. Jeffrey Butts of the Urban Institute says these facts challenge the idea that a change in girls' behavior is the major reason for the rise in arrests and detentions.

"Behavior changes contribute somewhat to it, but very slightly," Butts says. "The largest reason for the change is that the juvenile justice system itself is becoming less paternalistic — meaning that police officers, prosecutors, judges are less likely to treat someone differently because she's female than they may have 20 to 30 years ago."

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Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.