Report: Juvenile Justice System must substantively revamp treatment of girls

By Sarah Barr, JJIE.orgGenderInjustice_infographic_web_midquality

Juvenile justice reformers risk leaving girls behind if they fail to consider how traumatic experiences push girls into the system, says a new report.

Officials and advocates are more aware than ever of the way trauma affects girls’ behavior, but too few reforms are tailored to those experiences, said Francine T. Sherman, lead author of the report and a clinical law professor at Boston College Law School.

“Not only are we not fixing it, we are in an unfair and biased way penalizing girls for their background,” she said.

The report, “Gender Injustice,” examines how trauma shapes girls’ behavior and how girls end up in the juvenile justice system, and recommends reforms to help girls rather than penalize them.

Sherman and co-author Annie Balck call on the juvenile justice system to end policies that criminalize such behaviors as running away or fighting at home, to engage families, to use trauma-informed approaches, to promote positive youth development, to limit secure confinement and to use health care funding to help girls who have experienced trauma.

“The strategies are out there, but they’re not being applied intentionally,” Sherman said. “There are all these opportunities to do a better job.”

She pointed to diversion from the juvenile justice system into community programs as one method that many jurisdictions pursue but that could be more effective for girls if it targeted their experiences.

At the other end of the system, jurisdictions should look carefully at their secure facilities for girls, where often only a few girls are being held, Sherman said. Girls have sometimes been an afterthought because they are so few, but that’s precisely why systems should look for solutions, she said.

The report was released through The National Crittenton Foundation and the National Women’s Law Center.

History of trauma

Research has shown girls in the justice system often have experienced abuse, violence, adversity and deprivation. Studies have found 31 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced in-home sexual abuse and 84 percent have experienced family violence.

Those experiences lead to behaviors that push girls toward the justice system, the report said.

The researchers highlighted data that shows girls’ share of the juvenile justice system has grown during the past 20 years at all stages, including arrest, court caseloads, detentions and probation.

In 2012, girls were 29 percent of youth arrested nationwide, compared with 20 percent in 1992, even as the number of arrests declined overall. Girls’ arrests were disproportionately for offenses that were not public safety threats, such as prostitution or theft.

Once girls are arrested, they risk moving deeper into a system that is not prepared to meet their needs, the report said.

Girls also are more likely than boys to be detained for status offenses (behaviors such as running away or breaking curfew, which would not be crimes if committed by adults), technical violations and for simple assault.

Those are offenses that would be better dealt with in girls’ communities than in detention, the report said.

Liz Ryan, chief executive officer of the Youth First! Initiative, said the report is a road map for how to change that experience — and comes at a time when reformers are open to ideas about girls.

“There’s this rhetorical phrase a lot of us have: ‘What about the girls?’ I want to get to a point where I don’t have to ask the question in meetings,” she said.

Ryan said the report highlights important concrete strategies to help girls, such as ending the valid court order exception for status offenses (which lets judges issue detention orders) and ensuring mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence don’t inadvertently affect girls.

The report also looks at how particular populations of girls are affected by the juvenile justice system. Girls of color and lesbian, bisexual, questioning/gender-nonconforming and transgender girls face additional barriers to appropriate care, the authors said.

Reformers also need to think carefully about the particular needs of girls who are pregnant or parenting, have run away or are victims of sex trafficking or in-home violence, the report said.


  1. I’m sorry to have to say so, but posters and articles like this make me both sad and angry (and to be truthful, makes my blood boil).

    Every single one of those conditions mentioned in this poster also apply to boys – including sexual assault (which males are MUCH more unlikely to report). “Gender justice” is a useless (and needlessly inflammatory) term that has no place here; rule of law and ensuring the constitutional guarantees of fairness and equitable treatment *for everyone* under the law should.

    I think if we truly applied ‘Gender Justice’ here you might be unpleasantly surprised at the results. Take, for instance, sexual assault. There are myriad (and somehow always overlooked) studies showing the alarming rate of sexual assault by females in the childhood of male rapists of women. That’s *why* they target women. In their world (they too were childhood trauma survivors that no-one seems to include) there was no justice, no safe place to go. No different than the girls in your poster. ‘Gender justice’ in this case would mean that for those young male victims (who often become the boys in the justice system you’ve conveniently excluded) the exact same legal investigations, the exact same criminal prosecutions, convictions, and sentencing would apply to those female rapists as their male counterparts. The exact same system supports would be available to their victims.

    As a matter of fact, it can be proven (over and over) that girls and women get much ‘better’ treatment in the legal system than males for the same crimes (if not being investigated, charged, prosecuted, convicted, and given much shorter sentences would be considered ‘better’.) ‘Gender justice’ would mean that girls are treated exactly the exact same as boys.

    It’s bad enough that the original questions (conceived of in previous decades so perhaps that could be excused) were gender biased. That that was never corrected even with the guiding eye of the CDC who should have known better is not excusable, and speaks to an agenda that runs counter to the stated goals of measuring and improving health outcomes for survivors of adverse childhood experiences. That *should* include ALL survivors, of ALL types of adverse experience – OF all genders BY all genders.

    “Did you witness your father beat your mother?” – this is a one-sided question which introduces considerable bias and should never have been allowed. It is both sexist AND hetero-normative.

    “Did you witness your mother beat your father?” would have been the hetero-normative (and necessary) corrective, and SHOULD HAVE BEEN ASKED. Then, as we became more aware of other orientations, we should have added “Did you witness your father beat your father?” and “Did you witness your mother beat your mother?”

    Of course, all of this complexity could have been avoided if the original checks and balances had been applied when drafting the original questions, and the gender neutral “Did you witness any adult in your family beat or harm another adult?” had been used.

    Instead we’ve had decades of gender bias built into the very fabric of this very important study, which taints its results, and skews the recommendations therefrom.

    I have no problem advocating for more compassionate treatment of girls (or women) in the justice system, and sentencing and reform that is more appropriate to their offences. However, I would say the exact same thing for ANY victim of trauma: girls AND boys, women AND men. That this is being advocated ONLY for girls I find alarming.

    Finally, in a sad irony I suppose, the one indication of true injustice – the unfair and inequitable treatment of black and native girls compared to their white counterparts, and LGBT compared to their straight counterparts, gets buried in this report.

    I’m, frankly, troubled to see various campaigns cherry-picking some victims over others, and even more troubled at the seemingly casual way they leave other victims out to dry.


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