A new report calls for juvenile justice reformers to focus attention on girls in the system. The report, “Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reform for Girls,” acknowledges promising reform initiatives, but emphasizes the need for these efforts to be inclusive of girls who have landed in the system due to a traumatic experience, such as domestic violence or sexual abuse. The report is authored by Francine T. Sherman and Annie Balck, and produced by The National Crittenton Foundation and The National Women’s Law Center.
More girls are involved in the juvenile justice system
Supporting this call to action, report authors cite a growing body of research that demonstrates the increase of juvenile justice-involved girls over the past 20 years. According to the report, despite overall declining juvenile arrest rates, in the last two decades girls’ participation in the juvenile justice system increased at all stages of the juvenile justice process:
- Arrests increased 45 percent (from 20 to 29 percent);
- Court caseload increased 40 percent (from 20 to 28 percent);
- Detentions 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).
Pushed Into the System by Experiences Out of Their Control
Further, girls are being pushed into the system due to criminalized behavior that often results from traumatic experiences, like family violence or sexual abuse—experiences that are beyond girls’ control. Research highlighted in the report revealed that:
- 45 percent of girls in an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study of justice-involved youth had experienced five or more ACEs;
- 31 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced in-home sexual abuse;
- 84 percent have experienced family violence;
- And, girls reported sexual abuse at more than four times the rate of boys.
As a result of traumatic experiences like these, girls may commit status offenses like running away, alcohol consumption or skipping class—activities that land them in juvenile detention. According to the report, 37 percent of girls’ detentions were status offenses or technical violations. Once there, girls face systems and processes that aren’t tailored to help girls heal from trauma. Sometimes, these experiences even worsen their situations.
Helping Girls Heal
To bring more focus to helping girls heal, rather than pushing them further into the system, the report outlines several solutions. The top-line takeaway: adapt reform initiatives to incorporate individualized approaches for girls, consistent with developmental research and tailored to each girl’s social environment, risk level and needs. The report outlines nine specific solutions that reformers should consider:
- Stop criminalizing behavior caused by damaging environments that are out of girls’ control through strategies like law enforcement training, diverting girls involved in family domestic violence, treating sexually exploited girls and revising school policies to support girls in need.
- Engage natural helpers, specifically family members, through the juvenile justice process as a tool for both prevention and intervention to resolve family issues and establish a support system.
- Use pre-petition diversion to provide “off-ramps” from the formal justice system for girls living in traumatic social contexts, which will assist struggling girls and prevent deeper justice involvement.
- Don’t securely detain girls for offenses and technical violations that pose no public safety threat and are environmentally-driven.
- Attorneys, judges, and probation should use trauma-informed approaches to improve court culture for girls.
- Adopt a strengths-based, objective approach to girls probation services.
- Use health dollars to fund evidence-based practices and programs for girls and address health needs related to their trauma.
- Limit secure confinement of girls, which is costly, leads to poor outcomes, and re-traumatizes vulnerable girls.
- Support emerging adulthood for young women with justice system histories.
See the full report here.
What reform solutions have you seen that are effective at helping girls heal? Share in the comments below.
Updated: February 08 2018