At-risk Girls are Treated Differently in the Juvenile Justice System

Posted by Lori Cohen

Dec 10, 2015 10:00:00 AM

Girls are different from boys—an obvious statement that isn’t so obvious in much of the juvenile-justice system. In the past, girls historically made up a smaller percentage of the juvenile justice system. However, the number of girls entering the justice system is on the rise.

As pointed out in an exhaustive report by Francine T. Sherman Annie Balck1 (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” them.

At all points, starting with arrest and going through disposition, the authors of the report said, “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% of boys were locked up for things like truancy, drinking alcohol, or curfew violations. Yet, 37% 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 11% gap: 21% female to 12% male youths.

When at-risk 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% of detained girls remain in detention longer than 30 days and 11% remain after 60 days.”

How to solve the gender gap

In order to solve the gender gap, The National Research Council suggests that “Girl-focused reforms must be woven into current developmentally-focused, system-level juvenile justice reform, rather than treated as discrete, isolated efforts. When reforms focused on girls are isolated from larger juvenile justice reforms have tended to be underfunded and short-lived.” Connecticut, Florida, and California are a few states that have facilitated their efforts for improving the juvenile justice system for girls.

The council recommends that a system-wide reform approach for all juveniles, both male and female be introduced as a foundation while introducing the following measures:

  • Ensuring accountability without criminalization
  • Providing alternatives to putting kids in the justice system
  • Treating each case individually after needs and risks are assessed
  • Locking up kids only to ensure public safety
  • Making fairness a top priority
  • Being aware of disparate treatment
  • Getting the family involved

In addition to making improvements to the entire juvenile justice system, female-focused measures should then be woven into the reform approach. Among the National Research Council’s female-specific suggestions are to:

  • 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 most importantly, to
  • 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 ‘child-serving 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. 

1Sherman, Francine & Balck, Annie. Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls. Portland, OR: The National Crittenton Foundation, 2015.


Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is an evidence-based program for at-risk youth and families. MST is a community-based program for juveniles that helps prevent youth violence by utilizing a built-in suite of services within the home, school, and community settings. To learn how MST is a cost effective alternative to locking kids up, download this white paper.

Download the Report  

Topics: Mental Health