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Juvenile Justice - Girls and Juvenile Justice System: Facts & Statistics

Gender-Specific Programs Most Effective in Addressing Needs of Delinquent Girls

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Updated September 21, 2011
Girls are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system with minority females disproportionately represented among delinquent girls; two-thirds are girls of color. The majority have been subjected to some form of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse.

The above findings from the September 2009 study "Report on High Risk Girls and Gender-Specific Programming," commissioned by the The Girls' Initiative of the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, shed light on a segment of society that is frequently overlooked and underserved -- high risk girls whose actions lead to incarceration.

Compared to their male counterparts, incarcerated girls experience childhood victimization at much higher rates. Many enter the system with serious mental health issues. Frequently arrested for non-violent offenses (e.g. truancy, running away) incarceration compounds their trauma.

This vulnerable population differs in key areas from incarcerated boys. As the Girls' Initiative report indicates:

Most scholars and practitioners acknowledge that the juvenile justice system was designed for boys. We too often try to squeeze delinquent girls in to an existing boys program, without stepping back to evaluate if that program is effective or even suited for girls’ needs.
Gender-specific programs must be part of the juvenile justice system in order to turn the lives of these girls around and reduce recidivism.

"I know gender responsive programs work," says Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral who heads up Massachusetts' largest sheriff's department and the 30th largest in the country. Emphasizing that early intervention is also cost effective, she states, "We've seen the results with female inmates at the House of Correction.  Imagine the preventative effect...if they were in place when these women were juveniles.  Waiting until we're spending $42,000 per year to incarcerate them should not be an option."

The following facts from the the Girls' Initiative report and the group Physicians for Human Rights highlight the challenges faced by girls in the juvenile justice system.

Abuse is commonplace

  • 92% of girls in California have experienced physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse
  • Nationwide, 73% of girls have been abused according the the U.S. Department of Justice
  • Over 45% have been beaten or burned
  • 40% have been raped
In most cases, girls are abused by someone they trusted -- a family member or close family friend. Sexual abuse leads to low self-esteem, inability to trust, academic failure, eating disorders and teen pregnancy. Girls who have been abused and/or neglected are twice as likely to be arrested than other girls.

Many have physical and mental health problems

  • 32% have or have had STDs
  • 32% have chronic health problems
  • 60-87% need substance abuse treatment
  • 50% report drug use by a parent
  • 50% are more likely to suffer PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) than incarcerated boys
In one sample of female juvenile offenders, 70% had experienced trauma and 65% had experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sometime in their lives.

Another study of incarcerated girls in Colorado revealed that

  • 100% had PTSD
  • 80% required substance abuse treatment
  • 67% had psychiatric disorders
  • 50% had eating disorders
  • 47% had attempted suicide or self-mutilation
Certain key factors are gender-specific
  • Girls are at highest risk for delinquency at 12-14 years old
  • They experience higher rates of depression, body image disorders and thoughts of suicide, all of which increase during incarceration
  • Incarcerated girls tend to be person offenders; boys tend to be property offenders
  • Girls are most often arrested for non-violent crimes and status offenses such as running away, truancy, curfew and probation violations, disorderly conduct or prostitution
  • Female juvenile offenders engage in sexual activity at an earlier age than non-offenders, increasing their risk of STDs and unplanned pregnancy
Gender challenges increase risk of delinquency

Girls have specific developmental needs during adolescence which, if met, greatly reduce their chances of becoming juvenile offenders. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention:

In understanding the developmental pathways that can lead girls to delinquency, it may help to consider what girls need for healthy development while also recognizing the challenges that may put them at greater risk of delinquency. For example:
  • Need for physical safety and healthy physical development
    Challenged by poverty, homelessness, violence, inadequate health care, inadequate nutrition, substance abuse
  • Need for trust, love, respect, validation from caring adults to foster healthy emotional development and form positive relationships
    Challenged by abandonment, family dysfunction, poor communication
  • Need for positive female role models to develop healthy identity as a woman
    Challenged by sexist, racist, homophobic messages, lack of community support
  • Need for safety to explore sexuality at own pace for healthy sexual development
    Challenged by sexual abuse, exploitation, negative messages about female sexuality
  • Need to belong, to feel competent and worthy
    Challenged by weakened family ties, negative peer influences, academic failure, low self-esteem
As indicated by the above factors, female juvenile delinquency is often a cry for help. Specific programs tailored to the issues and concerns of girls in the juvenile justice system can arrest and even reverse the rising rate of incarceration among vulnerable high risk girls.

Sources:
"Chapter 1: Female Juvenile Delinquents: Why Are Girls' Needs Different?"Guiding Principles for Promising Female Programming, Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Programs, U.S Department of Justice. October 1998.
Lyman, Lynne, MPA and Elizabeth Spinney, MPP. "Report on High Risk Girls and Gender-Specific Programming." The Girls' Initiative of the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, girlscoalition.org. September 2009.
"Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral." SCDMA.org, Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, Massachusetts website. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
"Unique Needs of Girls in the Juvenile Justice System." Health and Justice for Youth Campaign, PhysiciansforHumanRights.org. Retrieved 8 July 2010.

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