Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States
The number of girls involved in the juvenile justice system is on the rise, and the system isn’t prepared. Here’s a look at some lessons learned from states that are making positive reforms.
Girls make up a growing percentage of the juvenile justice population, and a significant body of research and practice shows that their needs are not being met by a juvenile justice system that was designed for boys.
The typical girl in the system is a non-violent offender, who is very often low-risk, but high-need, meaning the girl poses little risk to the public but she enters the system with significant and pressing personal needs. The set of challenges that girls often face as they enter the juvenile justice system include trauma, violence, neglect, mental and physical problems, family conflict, pregnancy, residential and academic instability, and school failure.
Most girls who wind up tangled in the justice system have family problems, trauma or a history of abuse, says Georgetown University professor Peter Edelman, who co-authored the report.
The report looks at reform efforts in states, focusing specifically on Connecticut, Florida and Stanislaus County, California. While the details differ in each area, they share common elements. These elements form the basic architecture of gender-responsive juvenile justice reform at the state and local level:
- Research to Diagnose the Problem
- Public Education Campaign
- Strategic Planning
- Engagement of Key Stakeholders, Including Girls
- Staff Training
- Community-Based Diversion and Prevention Programs
- Pilot and Demonstration Projects
- Outcome Measures and Evaluation
- Technical Assistance
- Funding and Sustainability
Federal policy has been instrumental in seeding state and local gender-responsive reform efforts. This report recommends that the federal government take the following steps to support these reforms:
- Conduct research on programs for girls, particularly regarding best practices in gender-responsive programming, and conditions of confinement for girls
- Develop a stronger, standardized assessment tool for girls entering the system
- Require at least one member of each State Advisory Group (SAG) to have expertise in gender-specific female services
- Mandate a comprehensive effort by the U.S. Department of Justice to improve training and technical assistance for better recognition of the unique needs of marginalized girls among judges, law enforcement, and juvenile justice staff
- Allocate federal funding and encourage states to apply for federal funding for gender-specific programming
- Convene interagency working groups at the federal and state levels to address the needs of marginalized girls and young women
- Close the loophole that currently allows states to detain youths for technical violations of court orders—a practice that has a disproportionate impact on girls
- Encourage the development of national standards for gender-responsive programming
- Promote policies to keep girls out of the adult criminal justice system
As this report demonstrates, reformers can make real differences in the lives of girls who are involved in, or at risk of entering into, the juvenile justice system. The set of strategies offered in the report are designed to aid future reform efforts.
This report is a product of the policy series, Marginalized Girls: Creating Pathways to Opportunity, hosted by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy, in partnership with The National Crittenton Foundation, and Human Rights Project for Girls.
Be sure to listen to the National Public Radio segment on the report, which aired on Oct. 26, 2012, Tough Times For Girls In Juvenile Justice System