Removing the Blinders: Acknowledging the Unique Needs of Girls of Color in the Juvenile Justice System

As anyone who knows about the juvenile justice system will tell you, girls who are in the system are there because of a history of abuse. But why girls are there and the unique needs faced by girls of color is something largely ignored, even by those working in the justice system. For example, we know that girls’ brains develop earlier than boys do; we also know that so do their bodies. Unique factors such as these are precisely why I recently wrote and presented, “Blind Discretion: Girls of Color and Delinquency in the Juvenile Justice System.”
The juvenile justice system was designed to empower its decisionmakers with a wide grant of discretion in hopes of better addressing youth in a more individualistic and holistic, and therefore more effective, manner. Unfortunately for girls of color in the system, this discretionary charter given to police, probation officers, and especially judges has operated without sufficiently acknowledging and addressing their unique position. Indeed, the dearth of adequate gender/race intersectional analysis in the research and stark absence of significant system tools directed at the specific characteristics of and circumstances faced by girls of color has tracked alarming trends such as the rising number of girls in the system and relatively harsher punishment they receive compared to boys for similar offenses. This willful blindness must stop.

My article examines the history and modern status of the juvenile justice system as it relates to girls of color, showing how it does not, in fact, relate to girls of color. It cites studies that find examples of young women of color receiving harsher punishment than white girls for the same incidents; and of probation officers perceiving White, Hispanic and Black girls differently.
I encourage those who care about the system to further study the unique needs facing girls of color. Without effective studies, we cannot have effective remedies. While it may seem bleak, there is reason for hope and opportunity for change within the juvenile justice system. With thoughtful reforms, we can help justice-involved girls of color. The first step is to recognize and acknowledge the unique needs of girls of color.
This paper was presented at the UCLA Law Review’s 2012 symposium, Overpoliced and Underprotected: Women, Race, and Criminalization.

Jyoti Nanda is the 2012-2013 Faculty Co-Director for the Critical Race Studies Program and Core Faculty in the David J. Epstein Public Interest Law Program at UCLA School of Law. Professor Nanda has scholarship interests in social justice advocacy, civil rights issues, and the ways in which children and youth intersect with the juvenile justice system. Prior to joining the faculty at UCLA School of Law in 2003, Professor Nanda was awarded a Skadden Fellowship – one of 25 prestigious fellowships awarded each year often called the “Legal Peace Corps” – to work as a staff attorney at the Los Angeles office of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF). Professor Nanda earned her B.A. in Ethnic Studies with highest honors from the University of California, Berkeley and her J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law, where she served as Articles Editor of the Northwestern Law Review and was trained in clinical advocacy at the Children & Family Justice Center.

Updated: February 08 2018