Gender-Responsive Probation for Girls? Numbers Don’t Support It So Far

In October, The Chronicle covered a briefing by advocates for girls in the juvenile justice system for Congressional staffers, where a report was released on the subject by the Georgetown Center on Poverty Inequality and Public Policy.

The female juvenile rate of incarceration increased more than 30 percent in 14 states between 1997 and 2007, according to the Center for Girls and Young Women. Advocates believe that traumatic experiences fuel many of the actions that land girls in juvenile court, and that simply directing girls to programs and interventions designed with male offenders in mind is not appropriate or effective.

The report recommends federal attention to and funding for delinquent girls, and highlights efforts in two states to develop juvenile justice options tailored to female offenders.

One of those states is Connecticut, where in 1999 the state used a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to develop strategies for serving girls and hire a program manager to oversee girls’ programs.

One byproduct of this work, touted at the briefing, is the Court Support Services Division (CSSD) gender-responsive probation program, which began in earnest 2006.

The idea was borrowed from adult female-only interventions that the Baltimore criminal court was experimenting with, said Kim Selvaggi, who was the girls’ program manager for CSSD at the time.

CSSD recruited female probation officers for the program, and trained them on trauma, boundary setting and relational language. They also received instruction on two girls-only interventions:

VOICES, an expressive and therapeutic approach to building internal strength developed by the Center for Gender and Justice. The curriculum includes 18 group sessions, to be led by a VOICES-trained leader, and journaling activities to be carried out independently by girls.

Girls Circle, the One Circle Foundation’s curriculum aiming to build protective factors in girls. Girls Circle is decidedly less structured than VOICES; adult leaders are involved simply to encourage girls to share their experiences with one another.

So…did girls-only officers help? The numbers available tell only part of the story, and not a good part, either.

When the gender-responsive officers were first deployed in 2006, CSSD assigned them only to girls with mental health problems or ongoing problems at home or at school, according to CSSD Director of Juvenile Probation Julia O’Leary.

CSSD later switched to a blind assignment so that it could measure the outcomes of girls in that caseload to those of girls assigned to other probation officers.

The comparison was based on one-year and two-year re-arrest rates for girls, and also calculated the arrest rates for girls who had completed the terms of their probation without an arrest.

The figures for 2011:


Gender-Responsive Caseload (GR) after 1-year: 43 percent
General Caseload (GC) after 1-year: 40 percent

GR after 2 years: 58 percent
GC after 2 years: 51 percent

GR after completing probation with no arrest: 14.7 percent
GC after completing probation with no arrest: 14.7 percent

The overall re-arrest rate of girls declined in the past two years, O’Leary said, which is noteworthy in and of itself, as Connecticut has expanded its juvenile justice system to include 16- and 17-year-olds.

But the difference between the two girls’ caseloads – higher re-arrests for girls in the GR caseload after one year, 3 percent less re-arrests after two years – do not suggest that, as far as preventing arrests, the gender-responsive caseload did not have much impact.

“No, it does not,” agrees O’Leary, although she also pointed out that the difference in two-year stats is “significantly significant,” and that CSSD is planning to start looking more at conviction than re-arrest soon.

Asked if she thought the gender-responsive caseload program was worth maintaining, O’Leary said that based on other “anecdotal” evidence, “I do think that it’s improved things.”

“We know girls age out anyway,” O’Leary said. “As they mature, they’re going to stop committing crimes.” The success she sees in the gender-responsive caseload are things like “workers putting them in a position to be in school,” and girls making “better choices in who they’re dating.”

CSSD’s Selvaggi echoed those sentiments.

“It’s not just recidivism that matters,” she said. The state should be looking at whether the gender-responsive caseload is “improving life indicators.”

Some of those indicators, things like dating choices and home life, will likely require the unscientific process of self-reporting. School attendance and performance measures are possible, but would require some trust and partnership with schools.

So the score in Connecticut after six years is: little improvement if any on re-arrest rates, and leaders’ anecdotal sentiment that the girls-only caseload has helped.

One Connecticut-based lesson for policymakers considering this strategy: It might make sense to incentivize training for a lot of workers somehow, and then recruit from within that pool to be the first girls-only officers.

What CSSD did was recruit probation officers for the jobs, and then trained only those officers. And now, O’Leary said, most of those officers are ready for something else after six years.

“We’ve sort of locked other people in, because we’ve given them so many resources, and in some cases, we don’t have another officer to take their place,” O’Leary added.

The fatigue factor was probably something CSSD should have seen coming. From a 2007 CSSD brief written by Selvaggi and Juvenile Probation Supervisor Amy Minoudis:

“Probation officers and practitioners continue to report that girls are more difficult to serve because of their very different pathways into, through and out of the court system,” the brief said. “Ask most probation officers and they will tell you, ‘I’ll take 10 boys for 1 girl.’”

Training a wider pool than a probation office will initially need can create a bench; incentivizing the jobs with a salary bump would probably also help.

The girls on probation “are more needy, more dramatic” than the boys, O’Leary said.  “They can be really nasty, so it’s very draining.”

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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