For many girls, the journey into the juvenile justice system does not start with committing a violent crime, or even a misdemeanor, but rather with a “status” offense—a violation that is not considered illegal for adults—such as breaking curfew or running away from home. In 2010, for instance, girls were detained for status offenses at nearly four times the rate of boys, according to Child Trends Data Bank.

Sadly, the root cause often underlying status offenses is having experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. A Florida study, for instance, found that 64 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system reported having experienced abuse.

A recent report by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, titled, “Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States,” stresses that girls’ needs often go unaddressed—or even intensify—in a system “designed for boys.” Few facilities provide appropriate mental and physical health services for girls who have experienced trauma. Detention facilities are often far from juveniles’ homes, making it more difficult for them (or their families) to mend broken relationships—a common protective factor against repeated acts of delinquency.

Many girls leave the juvenile justice system unequipped to deal with the challenges they face, which often results in their re-entering the system and sets them on a path commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison” pipeline.

“We've done a good job of clarifying the school-to-prison pipeline. But the school-to-prison pipeline is really a boy’s story. The story for girls is located more often in sexual and physical violence,” said Malika Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, in a recent OJJDP article.

So, what is being done to improve outcomes for girls in the juvenile justice system? The Georgetown report explores what several states are doing to work toward better outcomes.

In Connecticut, for instance, juvenile justice professionals are trained to use gender-responsive techniques to help identify the root cause of girls’ delinquent behavior. In one Florida county, recognizing that the path to juvenile justice can start as early as elementary school, schools have implemented “Girl Matters®: It’s Elementary!,” which incorporates gender and cultural response principles for at-risk girls. In Stanislaus County, California, a task force was established to meet the needs of at-risk and juvenile justice-involved girls; this group has focused on improving data collection, implementing mentoring programs, and promoting leadership opportunities.

While these programs are taking much-needed steps to meet the needs of girls who are already at risk or involved in the system, it is important to draw attention to what can be done in schools and communities to prevent girls from becoming at risk and from entering the pipeline altogether.

The National Center’s technical partner, The Child Welfare League of America, has compiled a helpful list of pro-active, upstream strategies to promote resiliency and reduce the risk of delinquency among girls of all ages. Their recommendations include:

  • Creating opportunities for girls to reconnect or deepen their relationships with adult women
  • Implementing classroom curricula that highlight women’s significant accomplishments
  • Providing health education and guidance about how to make healthy, safe decisions
  • Enouraging girls to look to the future, which can motivate them to avoid negative choices

Clearly, there are many approaches to building collaborative systems that support positive outcomes for our nation’s girls. We welcome you to share your expertise, thoughts, and experiences by commenting below.

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