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Juvenile Justice Reform Will Fail Without Specific Focus On Young Women

Young women will face continued abuse and worsening trauma if policymakers fail to address their gender-specific needs and pathways to the juvenile justice system, according to a new report [PDF] on gender injustice written by Francine T. Sherman and Annie Balck with the National Crittenton Foundation and National Women’s Law Center.

Their report is motivated, in part, by the missing focus on “how systems—and particularly juvenile justice systems—can be redesigned to protect public safety and support the healing and healthy development of girls and young women,” the authors write.

The authors conclude their report with detailed recommendations to “address harmful social contexts and girls resulting behaviors, rather than penalize and punish girls for challenges beyond their control.”

Young women entering the system

While the number of incarcerated youth is generally in decline, the rate of arrest and imprisonment for girls is declining at a significantly slower rate than that of boys.

There are many reasons for this trend, most of which center around the disparate treatment of girls by law enforcement and the justice system. Girls are more likely to be locked up for minor offenses than boys, for example. In 2013, 37% of kids behind bars for status offenses (e.g. violating a law that only applies to minors) or technical violations (e.g. violating conditions of probation) were girls, compared with 25% of boys.

21% of incarcerated girls were being held for simple assault and public order offenses (excluding weapons), compared with 12% of boys.

Girls of color are particularly vulnerable to having charges brought against them, as they were 20% more likely to be formally petitioned than white girls in 2013. Black girls were nearly three times as likely as white girls to be referred to juvenile court, and 20% more likely to be detained. American Indian/Alaska Native girls were 50% more likely to be locked-up.

The rise in arrests for assault among girls also stems from changes in law enforcement policies for domestic violence, such as mandatory arrest policies. Such well-intentioned policies designed to intervene in adult intimate partner violence often unfairly targets young girls, who the researchers point out can be “caught up [in] intra-family violence.”

The child welfare system is another example of this dynamic. “Child welfare officials or placements may directly funnel girls into the justice system by referring them to law enforcement or court for problem behaviors,” the authors write, “even when those behaviors are manifestations of child maltreatment.”

In some cases, the court may “over-intervene, often to the girl’s detriment,” prescribing punitive treatments where they are not appropriate. “Today, many judges would describe the practice of detaining girls who run away or violate curfew or rules of probation … as an effort to protect the girl.”

“As a result, even the most well-intentioned juvenile justice systems tend to push girls further into the system,” the authors write.

The over-policing of normal adolescent behavior in general, such as arresting kids for fighting or running away from home, is another driver of incarcerating girls. When Connecticut spent $2.4 million of taxpayer money on “The Pueblo Unit” — a twenty-four bed secure unit for girls — the state justified the expense by “citing the number of girls who ran away from less secure placement.”

But the choice to build a more secure prison misses the point of why the girls run away in the first place — they clearly aren’t in an environment where they feel safe and are having the treatments, relationships and trust they need to succeed.

Research suggests girls experience more acute emotional sensitivity to problem relationships with family members and peers, which can lead to feelings of rejection and depression. “Family chaos in general has been consistently noted by researchers as a common driver of justice system involvement for girls,” the authors write.

“Violence and abuse at home—especially sexual abuse—are strong predictors of juvenile justice involvement in girls.” Those who “pose no threat to public safety and whose behavior is directly related to experiences of abuse, violence and deprivation” are needlessly sucked into the system.

Police are also often under-trained on how to deal with adolescents, especially how to recognize and approach those with mental health and trauma-related needs.

In the system

Like the rest of the correction system, juvenile prisons essentially function as catch-all environments for those without access to the services and care they require. Girls with mental health needs constitute a substantial proportion of those behind bars, which the report found to be “a reflection of a failure on the part of health systems to fully address these girls’ needs.”

Once in the system, researchers found that girls may experience “maltreatment, sexual abuse, inadequate education, and lack of appropriate mental and physical healthcare, all of which can negatively affect their development.” This was especially true for girls of color and those held at higher-security facilities.

Incarcerated girls face disproportionately high rates of diagnoses for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), because they so often lack consistent access to healthcare. They are also nearly four and a half times more likely than boys to be victims of sexual abuse.

Girls serve unnecessarily long lengths stints behind bars “due to a lack of community-based alternatives for reentry services, family conflict making return home more difficult, high concentrations of mental health needs, and a general lack of understanding of how to best address girls’ needs.” 25% remained behind bars for more than thirty days; 11% stayed longer than sixty days.

Girls are sometimes processed into the adult prison system — a critical problem facing all juvenile offenders — making them vulnerable to even more trauma. Aside from the risk of violence and sexual assault by older prisoners, girls most often do not receive the services and treatments they need in adult prisons. “Girls in adult facilities do not receive even the bare minimum of rehabilitative and educational services that are provided in the juvenile justice system, and are instead placed in an environment more focused on punishment and control,” the authors write.

While the statistics are a bit elusive, the federal government reported last year that a “one-day count estimates 300 girls under age 18 were being held in adult jails either as juveniles or awaiting trial as adults.” Such placements put girls at greater risk of “suicide, physical and sexual abuse, isolation, and disruptions to their development.”

After detention

The authors write that girls do not have gender-specific support structures to lean on upon release. “Probation officers typically receive no training on the specific needs of girls,” they write, “and gender and cultural stereotypes can influence the treatment of girls and outcomes.”

Black girls face racist attitudes and stereotypes during release proceedings and programming that could negatively impact their chances of success on the outside. “Research has shown that probation officers may attribute causes of crimes committed by Black youth more often to internal deficits (e.g., personality flaws), while they attribute external deficits (e.g., coming from a broken home) more frequently to white youth.”

The other problem is that, in many cases, the money and the programs just don’t exist. Probation officers often lack the resources and connections necessary for girls re-entering society, in-part because of shortages of such services, making it difficult for even those who are truly trying to help.

What is clear is that empowerment and a sense of agency is critical to healthy adolescent development for girls. Punishment and secure placement makes those feelings nearly impossible to access. Why do we continue to detain and isolate girls, then, if we know it’s counterproductive?

Recommendations for change

The authors recommend an equity based approach, in which boys and girls are not treated the exact same way by the juvenile justice system, but instead have their individual, specific needs addressed.

An intentional gender-specific approach is necessary to ensure girls’ needs and their social contexts are being considered by the justice system. The report recommends states stop criminalizing behavior “caused by damaging environments that are out of girls hands,” through means such as decriminalizing “prostitution” for minors.

The authors argue we should recognize “minors charged with the offense have been exploited and victimized, that it is an indication of social service needs, and that youth should not be held responsible due to their age and development.”

They urge for a developmental approach as well, which achieves accountability without criminalization and utilizes alternatives to punishment and incarceration. Such an approach also individualizes a justice response based on a person’s needs and risks. Detention is a last resort, and family engagement and a sensitivity to disparate treatment is obligatory.

Minor school-based offenses that disproportionately affect girls should be decriminalized, and there should be alternatives to arrest for police encountering young women. The report also recommends reducing the use of the juvenile justice system for minor violations, including curfew violations.

Law enforcement officials also need special training to be able to identify girls with special needs, such as those who are victims of trafficking. Mandatory arrest laws should be reformed and girls should not be punished for living in chaotic environments beyond their control.

In general, youth should be given ample opportunity to be diverted from the system, and should not be held in secure placements when the pose no threat to the public. Such placements should be avoided at all costs.

Judges, attorneys and probation officials should also exercise trauma-informed approaches to girls in the courtroom, and probation should be used to “shore up positive social environments for girls, encouraging them to be involved in pro-social activities rather than punishing them for minor violations, such as failure to attend meetings in a timely manner.”

The authors also strongly recommend family engagement whenever possible, as they are incubators for success since “girls’ family relationships are central to their healthy development.” That includes supporting young mothers that have been incarcerated and giving families the tools they need to resolve family issues and prevent offenses from taking place.

Access to mental and physical healthcare must be improved for girls in order to keep them from falling into the juvenile justice system as well. Girls should not have their access to healthcare interrupted by incarceration.

Finally, and very importantly, the authors recognize the threat of recidivism among young people who have been incarcerated, calling for services to support “emerging adulthood,” because juvenile jurisdiction typically ends abruptly at 18. A smooth transition is necessary to facilitate independent living and to support pregnant and parenting young mothers and stop individuals from falling into a cycle of poverty and incarceration.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.