Are Young Girls ‘More Severely Punished’ Than Boys?

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Photo by Jes via Flickr

Photo by Jes via Flickr

Juvenile justice professionals are ramping up efforts to address what they say is a population whose special needs have been largely ignored by correctional reform efforts: young girls.

This winter, juvenile court judges and other girl-focused justice reformers will hold a closed-door meeting in Washington D.C. to discuss streamlining the nation’s hodge-podge of roughly 20 so-called girls courts—some of which do not adjudicate cases.

Meanwhile, a newly launched New York State initiative also is targeting justice-involved girls.

Researchers and girls advocates have been laying the groundwork for such efforts for the past few years as the number of incarcerated juvenile girls rises. Unmerited sentencing disparities, observers told The Crime Report, result in females being more severely punished than boys who commit similar low-level crimes.

“We’ve made some advances,” said attorney and law professor Francine Sherman, founder of Boston College’s Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project, and lead author of last year’s “Gender Injustice” report.

“But what we have not squarely faced is this idea that there are existing practices, policies and laws that, every day, treat girls differently than boys by incarcerating them for misdemeanors and violations of probation for those misdemeanors … ”

Jeannette Pai-Espinosa, president of the National Crittenton Foundation, organizer of the upcoming Washington roundtable, said in an interview that the nation’s courts ““operate under a very paternalistic system in court when it comes to girls.”

For example, she said, “a  girl who runs away from home can get picked up and charged with a status offense; many judges will detain her for her personal safety, but while she’s  awaiting placement [in a foster or relative’s home] in the community, she might get into an altercation with another girl in detention.”

“That  causes a whole other set of legal problems,” added Pai-Espinosa.

The Washington roundtable likely will be in February, said Pai-Espinosa, whose organization is a federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s National Girls Initiative grantee.

Attorney Sherman, who also consults with juvenile justice systems nationwide, added: “There are very few girls that belong in the deep end of the justice system. But the deep end is where we’ve been sending some of them.”

Sherman’s report, published in October 2015 in partnership with the National Women’s Law Center and National Crittenton Foundation, noted that juvenile arrests for boys and girls, combined, have declined in recent years.

But, regarding girls, these are among the  report’s conclusions:

  • Girls accounted for 20 percent of all juvenile arrests in 1992, and 29 percent in 2012.
  • During the same period, there was a 40 percent spike in the tally of 13- to 18-year-old females with cases on court dockets.
  • The number of girls incarcerated after their court cases were adjudicated rose 42 percent during that period.

Differing approaches by the 20 so-called girls courts are a major driver of those data.

“Not one of these courts is like the other … [and] the name,’girls court,’ itself is misleading,” said Sherman.  “Some of these so-called courts are [social service] programs only; some of them are just dockets.”

Though several of the courts are identified specifically as girls courts, most of them function as part of other “alternative” courts, such as family courts, juvenile drug courts, and sex trafficking courts, all of which handle cases involving male and female juveniles.

The 20 courts are in Honolulu, Hawaii; San Jose, Calif., San Leandro, Calif., Los Angeles, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Flint, Mich.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Houston, Texas; and San Antonio, Texas.

And across New York State there are 11 sex trafficking courts also functioning as girls courts, Crittenton’s Pai-Espinosa said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some courts may in fact be keeping some low-level girl offenders out from behind bars. But—except for the Hawaii Girls Court, the nation’s first—none of the courts’ outcomes have been scientifically measured and researched, she added.

Personal trauma—whether within their families or as result of being coerced into street prostitution, as examples—drives much of the crime that girls commit, according to Sherman’s report.

Other observers note that juvenile correctional systems too infrequently consider that trauma when handling girls’ cases.

““How are we treating girls trauma? Are we more likely to incarcerate girls with trauma history?” asked clinical and community psychologist Shabnam Javdani, a New York University professor who directs NYU’s ROSES.

That National Institute of Justice-funded project is researching interventions aimed at keeping girl offenders out of detention and in community-based projects to steady them personally and prevent their criminal behavior.

“We don’t have a girls-will-be-girls mantra in the same way that we have a boys-will-be-boys mantra when it comes to juvenile offenses,” Javdani told The Crime Report. “This sort of the tension, this sort of challenge was one of the main reasons we convened our Girls’ Justice conference. That challenge was one of the main underpinnings of the conference.”

An outgrowth of that July 2016 event—billed as “A Child Welfare Conference” and attended by lawyers, social workers, judges and others from across the country—is a fledging collaboration between NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children that will explore juvenile girls’ trauma, targeting New York counties where those youth are concentrated.

A first step in the statewide campaign to eventually alter New York’s girls’ justice policies and correctional practices is applying for federal and other dollars to finance the research and seed the related intervention programs, Javdani said.

If girls guilty of low-level crimes are going to be diverted from lockdown, change is essential, she and others said.

Generally speaking, added Boston attorney Sherman, “there’s not much evidence that incarcerating kids works. I don’t believe we should incarcerate kids. It makes them worse criminals.”

She continued: “Once a kid gets in the system, there are very long term stays in the system. We’re talking years.

Katti Gray

Katti Gray

“The fundamental problem here is that people do not see this issue as an issue of [gender] equity … If we simply narrowed the front doors of the system, there would be such a tiny number of the girls in the system … If incarceration is truly a matter of  public safety, you would see very few girls in that system. That’s why we’re meeting in Washington, to try and figure this out.”

Katti Gray is a contributing editor at The Crime Report. She welcomes reader comments.

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