Advocates Call for Federal Investment in Girl-Focused Juvenile Justice Programs

Advocates for girls in the juvenile justice system held a briefing for Congressional staffers this week to make the case for federal investment in research and development of programs and services designed for girls.

The briefing also marked the release of “Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls,” a report by the Georgetown Center on Poverty Inequality and Public Policy, which examines efforts in two states to develop gender-responsive strategies.

Among the recommendations voiced at the briefing and in the report:

-Support training on the unique needs of court-involved girls for judges, police and juvenile justice practitioners.
-Allocate federal funding for gender-specific programming.
-Eliminate the valid court order exception, which allows judges to detain juveniles for status offenses when a youth has already been ordered not to commit the offense.
-Seed the development of national standards for gender-responsive programs.

While juvenile crime and incarceration rates have generally since the mid-1990s, the drop has been far more pronounced with males, significantly increasing the proportion of juvenile offenders who are female. And 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.

Of the approximately 600,000 girls arrested each year, half are for nonviolent offenses such as violation of probation or status offenses, said Malika Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, at the briefing.

The Georgetown report’s recommendation to eliminate the Valid Court Order exception follows recent legislative attempts to do so. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill in 2008 that would have given states three years to either end use of the exception or risk the loss of some federal money.

Companion legislation in the House of Representatives never materialized, and the Senate version was never brought to the floor.

A 2006 census of juvenile residential placements found that 1,951 females were detained, committed or diverted to a juvenile facility for a status offense. That group represented 14 percent of all females in juvenile placements; only 4 percent of males in juvenile placements were there as a result of a status offense.

For many of the girls who come into contact with the juvenile justice system, Saar said, physical and sexual abuse has preceded their involvement in crime.

“We repeatedly hear of girls who are raped in foster care, or abused in their homes,” Saar said.

Saar was followed at the briefing by Nadiyah Shereff, a 26-year-old San Francisco woman who was a young teen when she was first incarcerated for an assault conviction. By the time she was placed in a juvenile facility, she said, she had witnessed a murder at the age of nine, and started habitually smoking marijuana at 12.

She credited the Center for Young Women’s Development, where she now works, for helping to get her life on track. CYWD Executive Director Marlene Sanchez met Shereff while she was incarcerated, and brought her into CYWD’s Sister Rising program, which provides paid internships to 17 system-involved girls each year.

“I needed to heal from the trauma,” Shereff said.

Jabriera Handy, who spoke after Shereff, said no such program was made available to her in Maryland. The Baltimore teen was charged in adult court when her grandmother died of a heart attack after the two had a heated argument.

Handy was put in an adult prison while her case proceeded. During her time in the adult facility, she witnessed the stabbing death of another inmate.

When she agreed to plea to a lesser charge, the judge waived her back in juvenile court, and she was send to residential care in Pennsylvania.

“I’ll carry my trauma from the adult [prison] for the rest of my life,” Handy said.

“Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls” highlights efforts in Connecticut, Florida to develop girl-focused programs and procedures in the juvenile justice system. Among the highlighted reforms in those states:

Connecticut: In 1999, the state started on a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to address girls. The project resulted in development of girls-only respite care and detention centers, and the training of probation officers who would exclusively handle girl clients.

Florida: Advocacy fueled by The Children’s Campaign and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency led to 2004 legislation requiring gender-specific programming at the Department of Juvenile Justice. In 2009, an alternative detention model for girls was implemented at the Southwest Florida Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

“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,” the report said.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at