Gender Injustice: Why JJDPA Matters for System-Involved Girls

pregnant girl
National Crittenton Foundation
Francine T. Sherman
September 29, 2015

Every day in the United States, abused and traumatized girls enter and are pushed through the justice system. My recently released report, Gender Injustice, System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls finds that, despite decades of attention, the proportion of girls in the juvenile justice system has increased and their challenges have remained remarkably consistent, resulting in deeply rooted systemic gender injustice for girls.

A developmental approach to juvenile justice is taking hold, yet systems routinely fail to include girls in promising system reforms. We must fix this.

Even in the midst of the current “developmental era,” juvenile justice systems are routinely failing to include girls in discussions about promising system reforms. Moreover, the invisibility of girls is exacerbated when system do not even collect data on how girls are affected by the problems they are seeking to remedy.

In the last two decades, girls’ share of the juvenile justice system increased throughout the juvenile justice process:

  • Arrests increased 45 percent (from 20 to 29 percent),
  • Court caseload increased 40 percent (from 20 to 28 percent),
  • Cased detained increased 40 percent (from 15 to 21 percent),
  • Post-adjudication probation increased 44 percent (from 16 to 23 percent), and
  • Post-adjudication placement increased 42 percent (from 12 to 17 percent).

Most troubling is that these girls pose little or no threat to public safely but are arrested and detained for actions such as misbehavior, failing to follow rules (37 percent of girls detentions were for status offenses and technical violations), and fighting at home (21 percent of girls detentions were for simple assault).

For many of these girls, traumatic and unhealthy social environments lead to behaviors that are criminalized, resulting in their entry into the juvenile justice system. Once there, misguided processes pull girls deeper into a system that is not built to help, heal or respond to girls’ developmental needs, but is focused on accountability and often actually worsens girls’ situations.

This process reflects structural inequality that is particularly harsh on girls of color and gender non-conforming girls (LBQ-GNCT). The Report also identifies subpopulations that are particularly misunderstood by the system as girls who are pregnant or parenting, have run away, are victims of sex trafficking or in-home violence.

The report describes a better way for girls and underscores the need for swift JJDPA passage to guide and support states to stop criminalizing girls for misbehavior that is directly connected to trauma.

Eliminating the VCO (Valid Court Order) exception, would prevent much of the systemic injustice highlighted in the report, and would support the many positive and needed reforms highlighted in the report, such as:

  • Engaging girls’ families throughout the juvenile justice process,
  • Using trauma-informed approaches to improve court culture for girls,
  • Limiting secure confinement of girls, which is costly, leads to poor outcomes, and re-traumatizes vulnerable girls, and
  • Prevent secure detention of girls for offenses and technical violations that pose no public safety threat and are environmentally-driven.

The last recommendation, noted above, is perhaps the most important, because it will stop the criminal justice pipeline for girls and reduce harmful and re-traumatizing incarceration.

Tanya Robinson, anadvocate with The National Crittenton Foundation who was arrested and detained over a decade ago for running away commented:

“I was 14 years old – in handcuffs with shackles on my ankles being carted to a van chain-linked to other girls. Once at the Juvenile Detention Center I was strip-searched. I felt like I was being punished for running away, which was a way to stand up for myself and to escape the sexual and physical abuse in my home that began when I was 6 years old. Over time some things have changed, but Gender Injustice reminds us how much work is still left to be done.”

In jurisdictions around the country, a developmental approach to juvenile justice reform is taking hold. By intentionally applying this developmental approach to girls, justice systems will meet girls’ needs, treat them fairly, and reduce their justice system involvement – finally moving girls off of the sidelines of reform so they can benefit from real change.

Federal leadership, swift JJDPA passage with elimination of the VCO exception are critical to getting this done!


Francine T. Sherman is a Clinical Associate Professor and Director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College Law School. She writes, speaks and consults on issues related to girls and the juvenile justice system.



This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. 

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, is up for reauthorization. As legislative changes are being made to bring this law up-to-date, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.


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