Although criminal activity has traditionally been linked to poverty, a growing percentage of those entering the criminal justice system as perpetrators are female or hail from middle and upper class households.
This isn't to say female criminals or crime originating from the so-called "right" side of the economic tracks are anomalies — they aren't — but it's becoming more and more commonplace for the perpetrator to be what would have once been considered "atypical."
History tells us that many cases that have snagged the public eye involved what were seen as unlikely suspects. Consider, for example, the famous case involving two wealthy teens in 1924 Chicago. When Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapped and killed a 14-year-old boy simply for the thrill of the kill, the country was simultaneously shocked and transfixed by the senseless crime.
Over subsequent decades, crimes committed by kids — especially those associated with ordinary or upper class upbringings — caught and held the news because they were unusual. And young girls involved in serious criminal activity provided much more titillating media fodder than boys. History records tons of interest in cases like the ones below — all of which received serious attention from both the media and the public:
- Convicted and imprisoned mass murderer Charles Manson's youthful followers slithered onto the world stage and the view of teenagers as perpetrators shifted. Many of Manson's followers came from households that — while dysfunctional in some ways — were mostly solidly middle-class. And, of course, at the core of his following were a group of innocent-looking young girls.
- In 1983, California teens Shirley Wolf and Cindy Collier appeared remorseless and almost bored when convicted of beating and stabbing to death an elderly woman for their own entertainment.
- Sandy Shaw, only 15 years old, and her friends stunned the public when they shot a man to death after Shaw lured him to a deserted place with the express intention of robbing and killing him.
- Jessica Holtmeyer, a Pennsylvania teen, conspired with others to trap, hang and subsequently beat to death a 15-year-old girl whose only crime was wanting to be Holtmeyer's friend. Even her juvenile accomplices were stunned by Holtmeyer's callousness.
While these examples are undeniably extreme, examples of kids who don't fit the mold of typical juvenile offender are no longer difficult to find. Cyber crimes, bullying, property offenses and vandalism perpetrated by affluent teens or young girls have become commonplace. And hardcore substance abuse of drugs like heroin — once associated with poverty and desperation — are increasingly present in million dollar homes and on college campuses.
Another Jessica story
Jessica O'Connell was born and raised in an affluent Atlanta suburb. A good student, O'Connell posted straight A's, graduating near the top of her high school class. While attending the University of Georgia in Athens, O'Connell continued her academic excellence and lived responsibly. She worked to help pay for school and shared an apartment with a boyfriend.
O'Connell admits that she experimented with drugs a little in high school. "But it was no more than what you might call the 'standard' for my age," she says. "I drank or got high on occasion, but I was careful to never let it interfere with my school or compromise my values."
This changed when she was introduced to heroin. "I was shocked and nervous at first, but when I found out you don't have to inject heroin, that you can just snort it, I tried it and loved it. For a good while I only did it on special occasions … for about two years it was just something fun to do every now and then," O'Connell says. She adds that at the time, her drug use didn't interfere with her job or classes, but the "honeymoon" didn't last. Soon her habit became more intense.