Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

By Joanne C

“The proportion of girls entering the justice system has increased steadily over the past several decades, rising from 20 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 2009.” – H.R. 1833

Self-portraits painted by girls in the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children’s Center in Laurel, Maryland. (From “Caged Birds Sing”)


You could write whole books on the issues surrounding girls in the juvenile justice system. Thousands of words could be said about how America’s juvenile justice system is failing girls; and yet none of those words would make a difference to the 337,450 girls who were arrested and criminally charged in 2010 alone (Watson and Edelman). But those words can wake up communities, and be spoken to legislators, who may then write their own words to change things. Real programs are needed to impact real lives. H.R. 1833: The Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls Act of 2013 moves us a step closer to more and better targeted programs, ones that address the lives and unique issues of the girls in the juvenile justice system.

What issues are we talking about? The bill’s text shines a small light. Up to 73 percent of the girls in the juvenile justice system have histories of physical and sexual violence. The Oregon Social Learning Center reports a startling statistic: the average reported age of first sexual encounter for girls in juvenile justice is 6.75” (H.R. 1833). Their entry into the criminal and juvenile justice system is linked to this victimization.   According to the bill,

[the] trauma of untreated physical and sexual abuse results in lifetime consequences for girls. These consequences include a higher risk for a number of negative social and health outcomes such as higher mortality rates, a variety of psychiatric problems, dysfunctional and violent relationships, poor educational achievement, less stable work histories, increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases and early pregnancy, substance abuse or addiction, and increased reliance on social services as compared to non-delinquent girls… A growing body of evidence suggests that girls who enter the juvenile justice system have equal if not higher rates of mental health issues than boys who enter the system.

The juvenile justice system is supposed to be rehabilitative for those in it, working to improve the lives of the boys and girls facing the system. But it hardly is. Without programs that respond to the specific traumas these young people have faced, how can it do anything more than lock them away for months at a time?

Most girls are not detained for “big crimes.” Usually, they’re there for skipping school, breaking curfew or running away from home (Johnson). Girls committed to a correctional facility in Maryland named Waxter wrote their own report about their experiences before and during their time locked up. They write, “We had our reasons for running, but instead of dealing with those reasons, they decided to lock us up” (Caged Birds Sing). This is a common theme across the juvenile justice system, at least where girls are concerned. Instead of dealing with the abuses, traumas, and problems that put girls in a perfect storm, the system tries to lock them away. We are ignoring the root problems.

H.R. 1833 aims to change this. It will add incentive grants for gender-responsive programs: “Current research and data have shown that gender-responsive, strength-based programming providing trauma-informed care and trauma-specific services is the most effective means of preventing juvenile offenses and reducing recidivism” (H.R. 1833). Such services would develop treatment, counseling, resources, and trained staff, which could better address the unique pathways of girls into the juvenile justice system. Programs would take into account histories of abuse, violence, broken families, and drug abuse, and really address the trauma that many of these girls experience. Grants could also be awarded to programs that reach at-risk girls before they have to find themselves in a correctional facility.

At the barest minimum, everyone simply wants to be treated as a dignified human being. This applies to the girls at Waxter, and the rest of the thousands of girls that the public hardly hears from. H.R. 1833 aims to provide the outlets girls in the juvenile justice system need through programs that will actually help them, rather than hold them back.

Sources and Links

H.R. 1833: Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls Act of 2013.

Johnson, Carrie. “Tough Times for Girls in Juvenile Justice System,” NPR: Oct. 24, 2012.

“Caged Birds Sing,” Girls of Waxter and ACLU.

Watson, Liz and Peter Edelman. “Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls,” Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy.

Self-portraits painted by girls in the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children’s Center in Laurel, Maryland. (From “Caged Birds Sing”)

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