The Gender Gap in The Juvenile Justice System

Posted by Lori Cohen, MST Services

Dec 10, 2015 10:00:00 AM

How to Make The Juvenile Justice System Fairer for Girls

Girls are different from boys. A pretty obvious statement that isn’t so obvious in much of the juvenile-justice system. blog-graphic-5.jpegAs pointed out in an exhaustive report by Francine T. Sherman Annie Balck (in partnership with the National Crittenton Foundation and the National Women’s Law Center), there is an inequality of treatment often from the get-go. Judges find abused young women from traumatic backgrounds in front of them and will put them into the system to “protect” the girls.

At all points, starting with arrest and going through disposition, the authors say, “The system is structured to pull girls in, rather than to use available ‘off-ramps’ to divert them to more appropriate interventions.”

Girls aren’t treated the same as boys for lesser offenses

This contributes to a disparity between young men and women when it comes to detention for minor offenses. Statistics show that in 2013, 25 percent of boys were locked up for things like truancy, drinking alcohol or curfew violations. Thirty-seven percent of girls were detained for the same reasons. When it came to being detained for simple assault and violating public order (crimes without victims), you’re looking at an eleven percent gap: 21 percent female to 12 percent male youths.

When the girls are locked up, they also don’t receive the help they need in order to do well once released. The study found that, “Given the proportion of girls detained for minor offenses, lengths of stay in detention are particularly troubling: 25 percent of detained girls remain in detention longer than 30 days and 11 percent remain after 60 days.”

The problems of how young women are treated has not gone unnoticed. The National Research Council offered a seven-pronged developmental approach to juvenile justice in 2013 that would have a profound impact on girls. The council called for

  • Accountability without criminalization 
  • Alternatives to putting kids in the justice system 
  • Treating each case individually after needs and risks are assessed
  • Lock up kids only to ensure public safety 
  • Make fairness a top priority 
  • Be aware of disparate treatment
  • Get the family involved 

The authors expand on these suggestions, arguing that “Girl-focused reforms must be woven into current developmentally focused system-level juvenile justice reform, rather than treated as discrete, isolated efforts; girls reforms that are isolated from larger juvenile justice reforms have tended to be underfunded and short-lived.”

How to solve the Gender Gap

Among the council's suggestions are:

  • Stop criminalizing behavior resulting from environments that girls can’t control
  • Decriminalize “prostitution” for minors
  • Decriminalize minor school offenses commonly charged to girls, such as being verbally disruptive 
  • Reduce system involvement for misdemeanors
  • Remove the juvenile-justice system from enforcing and punishing curfew and ordinance violations
  • Change school policies so that they help girls in need
  • And very importantly, spend health dollars on evidence-based practices and programs for girls 

They write, “The federal Department of Health and Human Services has specifically advised states to use trauma-focused screenings and evidence-based programs in ‘childserving settings,’ including juvenile justice, and to use Medicaid as a source of funding. Several evidence-based programs have proved effective with girls in the justice system with histories of trauma and are covered, in whole or in part, by Medicaid, including Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, Multisystemic Therapy, and Functional Family Therapy.”

In the long (and short) run, it is far more beneficial to spend money on keeping girls out of the system than paying for onerously expensive placements. 

To learn how MST is a cost effective alternative to locking kids up download this white paper.

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Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform,, juvenile justice system

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