Ending Girls’ Incarceration in California

Vera takes on girls’ incarceration in the country’s most populous state

Addressing the disparities that drive girls’ incarceration is an urgent matter of race and gender equity. Girls and gender expansive youth of color—particularly Black, Native American, and Latina youth—have largely been left out of juvenile justice reforms. They have been criminalized by inequitable policies and their communities typically lack the gender-responsive programming that is needed to prevent their incarceration. 1

Vera founded its national initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration (EGI) to address race and gender inequity in communities and within the legal system that fuel disparities and create unique pathways to incarceration for girls and gender expansive youth. The Initiative aims to zero out the number of young people who are incarcerated on the girls’ side of the country’s youth legal system. Getting to zero is ambitious but achievable: on any given day, most states have fewer than 150 young people in girls’ long-term placement facilities—many of whom are there for low-level offenses such as simple assault and petty theft charges. 2

As part of this national effort, Vera is expanding its work to end girls’ incarceration in California—which accounts for roughly 13 percent of girls’ long-term commitments nationally.

In 2021, over 1,400 girls and gender-expansive youth were detained in California—typically in correctional facilities that are unable to provide long-term solutions to the challenges facing young people. 3 In California and nationally, incarcerated girls and gender-expansive youth are disproportionately living in poverty, LGBTQ, and youth of color—an inequity that is rooted in a long history of criminalization, particularly for Black, Native American, and Latina girls. Evidence tells us that the challenges that most commonly drive the incarceration of girls and gender expansive youth—such as sexual abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, family conflict, and housing instability—are effectively addressed through gender-responsive programs that are lacking in many communities in California and nationwide. 4

Check out Vera’s data on the state of girls’ incarceration in California

Vera analyzed publicly available data from the Juvenile Court Process Statistical System (JCPSS) database, Monthly Arrest and Citation Register (MACR) database, Juvenile Detention Profile Survey (JDPS), and Racial Identity Profiling Act (RIPA) datasets to gain insight into the current state of girls’ incarceration in California. 5 The data shows that reductions in juvenile detention over the past decade have put ending girls’ incarceration within reach for California, but it also shows that the girls and gender-expansive youth entering the state’s youth legal facilities are overwhelmingly youth of color. Black and Latina girls together make up 80 percent of girls’ annual detention admissions, with Latina girls making up the majority of those detention admissions. The data identifies clear opportunities for reform to address these disparities while promoting community safety. For example, despite significant reductions in girls’ incarceration numbers over the past decade, more than 67 percent of girls’ arrests and more than 45 percent of girls’ detention admissions in 2021 were on misdemeanors and status-offense charges. 6 Research shows that these types of low-level offenses can and should be addressed through community-based services. 7 For more information on the state of girls’ incarceration in California, and to get a sense of how close each county is to zero, click here.

Having already made significant progress in bringing girls’ incarceration to historic lows, California is positioned to lead the country in taking the steps needed to further reduce—and ultimately end—the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth.

A new opportunity for counties: The Ending Girls’ Incarceration in California Action Network

Vera has partnered with the California Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR) to launch the End Girls’ Incarceration in California Action Network. In April 2023, Vera and OYCR announced that they had selected four counties—Imperial, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego Counties—to be the first cohort to receive funding from OYCR and technical assistance from Vera to end girls’ incarceration. Through their year-long participation in the Network, these counties are committing to implementing equitable policies and gender-responsive programming to immediately reduce girls’ incarceration in their counties and set in motion multi-year plans to get to zero.

The selected counties will work with each other and with Vera to examine their local data, identify system and programming gaps, and implement policy and programming solutions to meaningfully reduce girls’ incarceration in their counties. At the conclusion of the Network, they will be eligible for additional funding from OYCR to support ongoing coordination and implementation of local efforts to end girls’ incarceration.

Building off success in California and nationwide

This effort builds off Vera’s success in other locations. Since EGI was launched in 2017, Vera has successfully worked in jurisdictions across the country, including New York City, Hawaii, Maine, North Dakota, and Santa Clara County (California). Vera works with leadership from juvenile justice and other child-serving agencies (including mental health, child welfare, and housing), advocates, service providers, and directly impacted young people to identify the local drivers of girls’ incarceration, develop court-based policy and practice solutions that stop girls and gender expansive youth from entering detention and placement, and build the gender responsive, community-based programs needed to properly support them at home.

Check out some recent news about the success across our sites:

In 2019, Vera began this work in Santa Clara County. Since then, girls’ annual detention admissions have dropped by more than 60 percent. In June 2022, Santa Clara—a county of nearly two million people—celebrated the one-year anniversary of having zero girls in their long-term placement facility and maintaining an average daily population of two young people or fewer in the girls’ unit of its short-term detention facility.

"Here in Santa Clara County, our focus has shifted to building programs and services that girls need in their communities so they don't stay in Juvenile Hall—and it’s working. This Network brings to the others in the state the resources and know-how that were instrumental in our ability to zero out girls’ incarceration in Santa Clara County."
- Nick Birchard, assistant chief probation officer, Santa Clara County Department of Probation

Check out the video below to hear from Vera’s partners in Santa Clara County about the importance and success of the work to end girls’ incarceration. This webinar also provides more information on the process and solutions that took place in Santa Clara.

1 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Girls and the Juvenile Justice System Policy Guidance, (Washington, DC: OJJDP, 2015), https://perma.cc/PJ6L-KP36; Erin Espinosa, “Research Points to Gender Inequities for Justice-Involved Youth,” Evident Change, March 5, 2020, https://www.evidentchange.org/blog/research-points-gender-inequities-justice-involved-youth; Erin Espinosa, and Jon R. Sorensen, “The influence of gender and traumatic experiences on length of time served in juvenile justice settings,” Criminal Justice & Behavior, 43(2) (2015), 187–203. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854815605540; Erin Espinosa, Jon R. Sorensen, and Molly Lopez, “Youth pathways to placement: The influence of gender, mental health need, and trauma on confinement in the juvenile justice system,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(12) (2013), 1824–1836, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10964-013-9981-x; The American Bar Association and National Bar Association, “Justice by gender: The lack of appropriate prevention, diversion and treatment alternatives for girls in the justice system,” William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice, no. 9(1) (2002), 73-96, https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmjowl/vol9/iss1/5.

2 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement,” https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/.

3 Vera analysis of 2021 California’s Juvenile Court and Probation Statistical System (JCPSS) data available at https://openjustice.doj.ca.gov/data.

4 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Girls and the Juvenile Justice System Policy Guidance, (Washington, DC: OJJDP, 2015), https://perma.cc/PJ6L-KP36; Espinosa, “Research Points to Gender Inequities for Justice-Involved Youth,” 2020; Espinosa and Sorensen, “The influence of gender and traumatic experiences on length of time served in juvenile justice settings,” 2015; Espinosa, Sorensen, and Lopez, “Youth pathways to placement,” 2013; The American Bar Association, “Justice by gender,” 2002; Megan Granski, Shabnam Javdani, Valerie R. Anderson, and Roxane Caires, “A meta-analysis of program characteristics for youth with disruptive behavior problems: The moderating role of program format and youth gender,” American Journal of Community Psychology, no. 65(1-2) (2019), 201-222, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajcp.12377; Shabnam Javdani, “Gender matters: Using an ecological lens to understand female crime and disruptive behavior,” in Perceptions of Female Offenders: How Stereotypes and Social Norms Affect Criminal Justice Responses, edited by Brenda L. Russell (New York: Springer, 2013), 9-24.

5 These datasets are publicly available through the California Department of Justice Criminal Justice Statistics Center and the California Board of State and Community Corrections.

6 Vera analysis of 2021 California’s Juvenile Court and Probation Statistical System (JCPSS), data available at https://openjustice.doj.ca.gov/data. Status offenses are noncriminal violations that are only considered a crime for children under the age of 18. This encompasses behaviors like running away from home, skipping school, and drinking alcohol.

7 Patrick McCarthy, Vincent Schiraldi, and Miriam Shark, “The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model,” New Thinking in Community Corrections, 2 (2016), https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/250142.pdf; National Research Council. Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2013). https://doi.org/10.17226/14685; Kyle Ernest, “Is Restorative Justice Effective in the U.S.? Evaluating Program Methods and Findings Using Meta-analysis” (PhD diss., Arizona State University, 2019), 101, https://hdl.handle.net/2286/R.I.54883; Annie E. Casey Foundation, No Place for Kids, (Baltimore, Maryland: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2011), https://www.aecf.org/resources/no-place-for-kids-full-report/.