Georgetown Researchers Examine Needs of Nation’s Growing Female Detainee Population

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Females represent a growing percentage of youth detained in the nation’s juvenile justice facilities, according to a new report, which found that the number of girls being committed to facilities rose 88 percent between 1991 and 2003. The number of committed males increased by just 23 percent during the same period.

The Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy released a new report earlier this month detailing the institutional problems facing female detainees in the nation’s juvenile justice system. “Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States” stems from the policy-examining series “Marginalized Girls: Creating Pathways to Opportunity,” a joint partnership between the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy, the National Crittenton Foundation and the Human Rights Project for Girls.

In 2010, more than 300,000 female juveniles were arrested and criminally charged, indicating a total decrease in arrests by about 15 percent since 2001.While the number of males - more than 800,000 - arrested and criminally charged during 2010 was higher, the totals represent a much greater decrease in overall arrests - a 26.5 percent decline over the last nine years.

Although recent estimates outline the nation’s residential facility population as predominantly male - females make up just 15 percent of the population, according to researchers - the overall proportion of females in the United States juvenile justice system continues to increase.

The report finds that 41 percent of female juveniles - compared to 24 percent of male juveniles - were detained in 2006 for status offenses, such as truancy and underage drinking. “In contrast to girls’ disproportionate arrests for such relatively minor offenses,” the study reads, “girls comprise less than 10 percent of arrests of juveniles for violent crime overall.”

Researchers say that the typical girl in the nation’s juvenile justice system is usually a non-violent offender, who is low-risk but high-need. As researchers believe that a majority of research and policies regarding the nation’s juvenile justice system are designed for boys, they fear that the physical and mental needs of an increasing female population will not be adequately met by facility services.

To remedy the institutional problems of female detention, the researchers recommend multiple steps to improve conditions for girls in the nation’s juvenile justice system, including public education campaigns, community-based prevention and diversion programming and the promotion of gender-specific personnel training at juvenile detention facilities.

The report examines reform efforts in California, Connecticut and Florida, which the researchers consider to “form the basic architecture of gender-responsive juvenile justice reform at the state and local level.” The study also makes several recommendations for federal policies, including the development of stronger standardized assessment tools for females entering the juveniles justice system as well as the allocation of federal funding towards gender-specific programs.

“We encourage stakeholders committed to improving the juvenile justice system for girls to investigate and implement the strategies discussed here,” the report concludes. “The experiences of reformers in Connecticut, Florida and Stanislaus County (California) suggest that there are concrete steps reformers can take to make a significant difference in the lives of girls currently in, or at risk of entering, the juvenile justice system.”