Start Small: The Key to a More Gender-Responsive Juvenile Justice System

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Marie WilliamsOn Jan. 21, hundreds of thousands of women gathered in Washington and other cities to send the message that “women’s rights are human rights.” The broad agenda for the marches included issues as disparate as LGBT rights, immigration reform, pay equality and even environmental protection.

Though very different, all were issues we have come to expect to see appended to a gender equality agenda. What we don’t often hear on the national stage is a call for broad reform of how women and girls are treated in the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

With the announcement of the president’s Proposed Budget Blueprint, which threatens significant cuts to programs for children and youth, jurisdictions seeking to do transformational work on this issue should not wait for a large, progressive national agenda to address this need; they should start locally, and start small.

The call for gender equality we heard on Jan. 21 is as relevant in juvenile justice as in any other sphere of American life. In fact, the unequal justice that girls receive began at the earliest stages of the system. The first juvenile court founded in 1899 defined “delinquent” as anyone under 16 who had violated a city ordinance or law. As applied to girls, however, the court included “incorrigibility, association with immoral persons, vagrancy, frequent attendance at pool halls or saloons, other debauched conduct or use of profane language” in its definition of delinquency.

Thus, from the very beginning, the system that was set up to rescue young people from the harshness of the adult system placed girls at greater risk of becoming system-involved, being adjudicated and ultimately confined. And that increased risk was based almost solely on gender norms that sought to define what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior if one was female.

Today, still, parents, caregivers and schools, disappointed, frustrated or alarmed by behaviors that deviate from a gender-based norm push girls into the juvenile justice system in an effort to get them to comply. And once there, girls’ individual struggles, personalities, attributes and needs are more likely to be overlooked, de-emphasized or dismissed.

Research shows that girls are more likely than boys to have experienced disproportionately high rates of victimization, particularly incest, rape and battering. They are also more likely than boys to internalize responses to trauma in the form of depression, self-mutilation and substance use, and as such may have child welfare involvement.

In a May 2016 study, researchers found that young girls with child welfare involvement were more likely to be placed in group homes because, the researchers posit, judges viewed out-of-home placement to be protective of girls who were in what was perhaps a “malignant” home environment. When girls come into contact with the courts, they are also more likely than boys to be detained for minor offenses and technical violations and are more likely to be returned to detention or placed out of home. The same study found that girls held a 56 percent greater risk of being sentenced to a group home placement over time on probation than boys.

In part because of the rapid evolution of our understanding about the root causes and possible solutions to the problems faced by girls, we still lack a coherent vision and strategy for how to address them. We are left to respond on an ad hoc basis when agencies or advocates sound the alarm about the increasing number of girls in our juvenile justice systems.

Even in states and locales where promising approaches are implemented, very few manage to sustain them through implementation of policy. Fewer still evaluate their work or collect data and information that could lead to the development of replicable models.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s National Girls Initiative, coordinated by the National Crittenton Foundation, aims to fill this gap by providing training and technical assistance, organizing convenings and developing resources to help systems become more gender-responsive. In 2015, NGI awarded more than $300,000 in grants. Even with their guidance and support, advances in our approach to girls remain local and limited. But limited need not mean ineffective. States and locales may find as they assess this issue for themselves that there are discrete areas where they can intervene to make a real difference.

In Philadelphia, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), whose core mission is to support youth prosecuted in the adult system and juvenile lifers, has begun such an effort. At YSRP, Stoneleigh Foundation’s Emerging Leader Fellow, Natasha Felder, is attacking the problem at the frontline by developing a toolkit for defense attorneys to recognize and help address some of the needs presented by young women when they come into contact with the juvenile justice or adult criminal justice system. Many of them are issues that could make adequately defending them more complex than it might be for boys.

Juvenile defense attorneys are, by their nature, one of the first contacts that these girls may have that is primarily concerned with identifying their needs. Unfortunately, attorneys often lack the training or tools to apply a trauma-informed and gender-specific approach to case investigation and sentencing advocacy. As a result, courts may not receive critical information they need to make informed, and potentially mitigated, sentencing decisions.

Through focus groups, conversations with young women involved in the system, as well as experts, advocates and systems professionals, Natasha Felder’s work has the potential to transform the lens through which some defense attorneys view their clients who are girls. While this project is discrete, it has the potential for far-reaching reform of how girls who come into contact with the juvenile justice system are assessed and ultimately treated.

If juvenile justice stakeholders in states and localities are looking to make their system more equitable in its treatment of girls, they should consider similarly incremental approaches. The strong and firm federal leadership we think we need on this issue may not be forthcoming. Start small. The key to a more gender-responsive juvenile justice system may already be in your hands.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

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