Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States

Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons  from the States examines the challenges facing girls in the juvenile justice system and makes recommendations for gender-responsive reform at the local, state, and federal levels. This report emerged from the policy series—Marginalized Girls: Creating Pathways to Opportunity—convened by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, The National Crittenton Foundation, and the Human Rights Project for Girls. The series focuses on improving public systems’ responses to the challenges facing marginalized girls and young women. 

The problems facing girls in the juvenile justice system were among the first issues to be addressed in the policy series, in a meeting held at Georgetown University Law Center on September 23, 2011. State reformers, national policy experts, advocates, practitioners, researchers and girls made contributions and insights during that meeting that inspired this report.Girls make up a growing percentage of the juvenile justice population, and a significant body of research and practice shows that their needs are not being met by a juvenile justice system that was designed for boys.

The typical girl in the system is a non-violent offender, who is very often low-risk, but high-need, meaning the girl poses little risk to the public but she enters the system with significant and pressing personal needs. The set of challenges that girls often face as they enter the juvenile justice system include trauma, violence, neglect, mental and physical problems, family conflict, pregnancy, residential and academic instability, and school failure.
 
The juvenile justice system only exacerbates these problems by failing to provide girls with services at the time when they need them most.
During the past twenty years, there has been a growing effort to reform the juvenile justice system for girls on the local, state, and federal level. This report chronicles the history of those efforts and renews the drumbeat for reform, urging more advocates to take up the cause of girls in the juvenile 
justice system.
 
To facilitate their efforts, this report provides:
 
A review of literature documenting girls’ particular pathways into the juvenile justice system
A brief history of recent gender-responsive, traumainformed reform efforts 
Detailed case studies of recent reform efforts in three jurisdictions: Connecticut, Florida, and Stanislaus County, California.
 
While the precise trajectory of reform in each of the three jurisdictions differs, they share common elements. These elements form the basic architecture of gender-responsive juvenile justice reform at the state and local level:  
 
Research to Diagnose the Problem
Public Education Campaign
Strategic Planning
Engagement of Key Stakeholders, Including Girls 
Legislation
Staff Training
Community-Based Diversion and Prevention Programs
Pilot and Demonstration Projects
Outcome Measures and Evaluation
Technical Assistance
Funding and Sustainability
 
Federal policy has been instrumental in seeding state and local gender-responsive reform efforts. This report recommends that the federal government take the following steps to support these reforms:
 
Conduct research on programs for girls, particularly regarding best practices in gender-responsive programming, and conditions of confinement for girls 
Develop a stronger, standardized assessment tool for girls entering the system 
Require at least one member of each State Advisory Group (SAG) to have expertise in gender-specific female services 
Mandate a comprehensive effort by the U.S. Department of Justice to improve training and technical assistance for better recognition of the unique needs of marginalized girls among judges, law enforcement, and juvenile justice staff 
Allocate federal funding and encourage states to apply for federal funding for gender-specific programming 
Convene interagency working groups at the federal and state levels to address the needs of marginalized girls and young women 
Close the loophole that currently allows states to detain youths for technical violations of court orders—a practice that has a disproportionate impact on girls
Encourage the development of national standards for gender-responsive programming
Promote policies to keep girls out of the adult criminal justice system
 
As this report demonstrates, reformers can make real differences in the lives of girls who are involved in, or at risk of entering into, the juvenile justice system. The set of strategies offered in the report are designed to aid future reform efforts.
 
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