Measuring the Wrong Things: Incarcerated Girls Are Not ‘Statistically Insignificant’

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girls and women: Sad teenage girl looking thoughtful leaning head against wall

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Last month the Stoneleigh Foundation and the Maternity Care Coalition held a policy forum intended to highlight the extent to which the U.S. overincarceration crisis is defined in terms of boys and men, often giving short shrift to the plight of justice-involved girls and women. The plenary sessions and workshops challenged attendees to think about how practice and policy might be altered to better serve women and girls.

One of the issues raised, but still not fully addressed at this forum, nor frankly in many conversations about gender and justice, is how to tackle the troubling issue of so-called statistical insignificance.

In research parlance, statistical significance refers to a result that is not likely to occur randomly but rather is likely to be attributable to a specific cause. This term of art has been adopted or co-opted by human service practitioners and policymakers in some circles to make an odious argument about justice-involved girls and women.

The argument goes something like this — that the numbers of girls and women in our justice systems are not significant enough to warrant wide-ranging practice and policy changes aimed at mitigating the ill effects of a male-centered system. One example raised during a session was that in the jurisdiction studied, incarcerated women gained an average of 17 pounds in their first year of incarceration, not only because of the poor quality of the food and fewer opportunities for physical exercise, but also because the calories provided are geared toward the male metabolism.

electronic monitoring: Marie Williams (headshot), senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation, smiling woman with necklace, earrings, pink top

Marie Williams

To change the caloric requirements would require changes in contracting — some costly — to ensure that women are given different meals than men, and the numbers of incarcerated women and girls simply do not justify that cost. Further, the benefits that may accrue to the relatively small population of women and girls could have deleterious effects to the larger population of men and boys.

Or, so goes the reasoning. The problem, however, is that it simply isn’t true. In fact, numerous studies have pointed out that prison food is across the board obesogenic and can produce poor nutritional outcomes for men and boys, women and girls, alike. When the focus is shifted from caloric intake to nutritionally sound choices, both genders benefit. So, in that instance, as in many others, we’re simply measuring the wrong thing.

Another example of this came in the April 2019 report “Girls in the Juvenile Justice System” from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). It highlighted the 53% decrease in arrests involving girls between 2006 and 2015, and the 43%  decrease in delinquency cases in the same time period, among other trends. The publication also noted that in 2015, placement of girls was at the lowest level since “at least 1997.” Courts, the report says, “refrained from [emphasis mine] adjudicating half of the petitioned cases involving girls.”

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That all sounds like good news. However, the report also notes that a disproportionate percentage (though talk of disproportionality is now out of favor at the OJJDP) of girls in delinquency cases are black or Hispanic, with black girls accounting for more than one-third of all delinquency cases.

In conclusion, the report says there is no worsening gender gap in juvenile justice, declaring that “[i]in the past 10 years, the relative decline across the system … has been about the same for girls and boys. As a result, the female proportion at each stage of the system has changed little during this period.”

Not just about the numbers

Except, the report by its nature is limited to a quantitative analysis of a problem that is not a purely numerical one. The numbers are important, but don’t tell the full story. The issue of girls and women in the juvenile and criminal justice systems is not simply one about how many, but about who and how they are served — or not — in these systems. So who are they?  How are they served? Who isn’t well-served? And what can we do about it? Those are questions that may or may not be appropriate queries for the report, but they certainly should be asked by policymakers and practitioners in the field.

Setting aside the important questions of race and ethnicity for the moment, studies have shown that when programming is gender-responsive — accounting for the unique circumstances, needs and characteristics of women and girls, when designing system structures, policies and procedures — it neither disregards nor disadvantages the larger population of men and boys.

For example, because of the greater prevalence of adverse experiences like neglect, physical or sexual abuse among girls, as well as higher rates of mental health challenges, gender-responsive programming for women and girls must include options to address these issues. When those issues are addressed, recidivism rates decline.

But what of men and boys who have those options just as freely available? Various studies have shown that on one end of the spectrum, this also benefits men and boys, and on the other end of the spectrum, this kind of programming will have negligible or no effect on men and boys’ recidivism rates.

So, while catchy as a pseudo-scientific argument, this contention — that women and girls are too statistically insignificant a number to merit potentially costly wide-ranging systems reform — simply does not hold up. Rather than count numbers of women and girls in custody, perhaps we ought to measure the relative efficacy of programming that will support them, while having potential collateral benefits for men and boys.

The opening plenary session was moderated by Marcia Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, who was joined by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and the president of National Crittenton, Jeannette Pai-Espinosa. Speaking from their own unique perspectives, they finally coalesced around a theme that might be a new, useful framework for all our justice systems when considering how to address gender: equal treatment for women and girls is not equitable treatment.

In other words, if treated equally to their male counterparts, women and girls return to their communities after confinement perhaps sicker, often further traumatized, and almost certainly less capable of becoming healthy, self-supporting and fully functioning members of society. These facts are not statistically insignificant.

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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