Despite decades of attention, the proportion of girls in the juvenile justice system has increased and their challenges have remained remarkably consistent, resulting in deeply rooted systemic gender injustice. The literature is clear that girls in the justice system have experienced abuse, violence, adversity, and deprivation across many of the domains of their lives—family, peers, intimate partners, and community. There is also increasing understanding of the sorts of programs helpful to these girls. What is missing is a 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.
Juvenile justice systems reform is occurring across the country as a result of a growing understanding of developmental and neurological differences between youth and adults, the high cost of incarceration, and the consistent failure of a punitive juvenile justice model. However, even as systems are initiating reforms and changing their approach, they are routinely failing to modify those reforms for girls or even to collect data on how girls, specifically, are affected by the problems they are seeking to remedy. As a result, the particular impact on girls of failures in the juvenile justice system is not understood and few juvenile reforms are tailored to girls’ needs and pathways into the system— meaning girls and young women are unlikely to fully benefit from system reforms.
Many of the problems discussed in this report are not unique to girls—and many of the suggested paths forward can benefit both boys and girls. However, because girls are frequently left out of reform discussions, an intentional focus on girls is needed to ensure that they fully benefit from system reforms. Indeed, in writing this report we were struck by the number of promising national and large-scale juvenile justice reform efforts that have not fully considered the role of gender in the problems they address or in the solutions they propose. If this intentional gender focus does not coexist with current large-scale system reforms, an important opportunity for gender justice and equity and developmental system reforms will be missed.
To facilitate developmental juvenile justice system reform for girls, this report will:
- Map girls’ current paths into and through the juvenile justice system;
- Describe the social contexts driving girls’ behavior and involvement in the juvenile justice system; and
- Detail recommendations for an alternative, developmental approach to redesign juvenile justice systems to address harmful social contexts and girls’ resulting behaviors, rather than penalize and punish girls for challenges beyond their control.
The recommendations included in this report are consistent with decades of research on adolescent development, as well as newer data on the development of girls in particular. With continued research on girls and an intentional focus on their needs, system stakeholders and policymakers can capitalize on current reforms that are already underway and ensure girls are not simply wedged into solutions meant for boys.