Too Many Girls in the Youth Justice System

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Girls are populating the juvenile justice system – at every stage of the process – in increasing percentages,   according to a new report, Gender Injustice: System-Level Youth Justice Reforms for Girls. In its comprehensive analysis, the report shows that, in the last two decades, the proportion of girls arrested increased 45 percent, their share of court caseloads and detentions each increased 40 percent, and their share of post-adjudication placement increased by 42 percent.

According to the report, females experience violence and sexual abuse in their homes and communities more than males. And their responsive behaviors, such as failing to follow rules and fighting at home, lead to arrests and criminal charges, court processing, detention, and incarceration for offenses that pose little or no threat to public safety.

“Every day in the U.S., abused and traumatized girls enter and are pushed through the justice system,” said Francine T. Sherman, the lead author of the report, who is a clinical law professor at Boston College Law School and a nationally recognized expert on girls in the juvenile justice system. “Rather than offering girls effective solutions, we are criminalizing them for behaviors which are the understandable response to trauma and abuse in their homes and communities.”

The report also shows that gender inequities are more common among girls of color and youth who are lesbian, bisexual, questioning/gender non-conforming and transgender. Other populations that are misunderstood and mishandled by the system include girls who are pregnant or parenting, runaways, and victims of sex trafficking or in-home violence.

Sherman, along with co-author Annie Balck, an independent writer, editor and consultant who has worked on behalf of at-risk and disadvantaged youth for more than a decade, offer several recommendations for reforms at all stages of the juvenile justice process, including an end to criminalization of behaviors – such as violations of status offense orders and fighting at home – caused by damaging environments that girls cannot control.

The report, which was released in partnership with The National Crittenton Foundation and the National Women’s Law Center, received support from the Public Welfare Foundation.

To see an executive summary of the report, click here.

To see the full report, click here.

To see an infographic based on the report, click here.


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

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