OJJDP Policy Guidance: Girls and the Juvenile Justice System

Girls are increasingly over-represented in the juvenile justice system; particularly girls living in poverty and young women of color, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in their recently released policy guidance: "Girls and the Juvenile Justice System." The significant increase of justice-involved girls over the past two decades was also demonstrated in September by Francine T. Sherman and Annie Balck in their "Gender Injustice" report; girls now account for almost 30 percent of youth arrests. OJJDP's new policy guidance calls for the identification and recognition of known risk factors - which lead girls to the justice system - and the implementation of developmentally informed approaches in order to reduce and divert the involvement of girls in the system. OJJDP's policy guidance aligns with the White House Council on Women and Girls' intention to advance equity for women and girls of color.

Identifying Risk Factors  

OJJDP's policy guidance identifies a number of risk factors which lead to involvement of girls in the juvenile justice system, also referred to as the sexual abuse/trauma-to-prison pipeline

  • Intersectional Disparities:  The intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and class is known to heighten the risk of juvenile justice system involvement for girls - particularly for Black, American Indian, and Native Alaskan girls.
  • Gender Gap: Girls are more likely than boys to enter the juvenile justice system for nonviolent offenses, stemming from encounters with trauma and violence. The justice system can retraumatize vulnerable youth, reducing positive outcomes, according to OJJDP.
  • Trauma: Justice-involved girls and young women experience violence and trauma in their lives at a much higher rate than their peers in the juvenile justice system. According to Sherman and Balck, 45 percent of girls in an ACEs study of justice-involved youth had experienced five or more ACEs.
  • Family Violence: Over the past two decades the rate at which young women are arrested for assaults, which often take place in the home, has noticeably risen. The increase in assault arrests of young women in their homes is seen in part as an unfortunate repercussion to the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which spurred state and local mandatory and pro-arrest policies.  84 percent of justice-involved girls have experienced family violence, according to Sherman and Balck.
  • Sexual Exploitation: Girls and young women treated as delinquents in the justice system are disproportionately victims of commercial sex trafficking who have been arrested for "prostitution and commercialized vice."
  • Pregnant and Parenting Girls and Young Women: Survey of Youth in Residential Placement finds that nine percent of justice-involved girls have children, compared with six percent of girls in the general population.
  • Health Risks and Needs: High numbers of detained girls are known to have psychiatric disorders, substance use disorders, and under-attended physical and mental health needs.
  • School Failure: Young women and girls - particularly girls of color, LGBTQI youth, and girls with a disability - are negatively impacted by school discipline policies which may lead them to the juvenile justice system.

Improving Response 

With "Girls and the Juvenile Justice System," OJJDP outlines their commitment to providing technical assistance, grants, research, and data collection to states, tribes, and local communities to improve conditions for justice-involved girls and young women. The policy guidance urgently calls on states, tribes, and local communities to improve system and programmatic responses, and identifies these eight focus areas:

  1. Prohibit the practice of placing status offenders or domestic minor sex trafficking victims in the juvenile justice system.
  2. Phase out the use of valid court orders, and reduce or eliminate arrests of young women for status offenses, technical violations of probation, simple assault, family-based offenses, running away, and prostitution-related charges.
  3. Collaborate to amend mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence and to ensure that policies focus on intimate partner violence and adults, not on youth and intrafamily conflict.
  4. Implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and its regulations, including the youthful inmate standard.
  5. Create developmental and trauma-informed alternatives to detention and incarceration for girls with complex needs who pose little or no risk to public safety
  6. Coordinate responses to housing, education, health, family, relationships, and safety in order to make gender- and culturally responsive, trauma-informed, and developmentally appropriate services the norm.
  7. Address the needs of girls who have—or have had—contact with both the child welfare and the juvenile justice systems.
  8. Ensure the competency of all programs and services which serve girls and young women in—or at risk of entering—the juvenile justice system.

These focus areas align with the Reclaiming Futures approach and model, and we encourage members of our sites and national community to share this policy guidance and to contribute to a dialogue of how these focus areas may be applied in order to improve our system and programmatic responses.

See the full policy guidance from OJJDP here.

Updated: September 23 2020