Getting to Zero: Ending Girls’ Incarceration in California

April 25, 2023

Special Report

In 2021, across the state of California, law enforcement made more than 4,700 arrests of girls and gender-expansive youth, who were admitted to detention more than 1,400 times. 1 Over two-thirds of these arrests and nearly half of these detention admissions were in response to misdemeanor or status offense charges. Research shows that these types of low-level offenses can and should be addressed in the community via community-based services. 2

Girls of color continue to be disproportionately harmed: California's girls’ detention population is over 50 percent Latina, and Black girls make up 25 percent of all girls’ detention admissions despite being only 8 percent of California's overall youth population.

Vera collected data from the Juvenile Court and Probation Statistical System (JCPSS), Juvenile Detention Profile Survey (JDPS), Racial Identity Profiling Act (RIPA) datasets and Monthly Arrest and Citation (MACR) databases to provide a detailed picture of girls’ incarceration across California. The data identify clear opportunities for immediate reform. Reductions in juvenile detention numbers over the past decade have put the end of girls’ incarceration in California within reach for any county willing to take bold and decisive action.

Many counties are already close to ending girls’ incarceration. With focused attention and investment, it is possible to end girls’ incarceration statewide by 2027.

Most girls are arrested on lower-level charges

Statewide, 67 percent of girls’ arrests, 66 percent of court petitions, and 46 percent of girls’ detention admissions are for misdemeanors and status offenses. These lower-level offenses—which often include charges such as vandalism, petty theft, and trespassing—do not pose a significant public safety risk. Research shows that these types of charges can and should be addressed through community-based services. 3

Across the country, most incarcerated girls and gender-expansive youth have experienced multiple forms of chronic generational adversity, usually from a young age–and their pathways into incarceration are often rooted in these experiences of trauma, abuse, and discrimination. 4 While some have argued that continued detention is necessary for public safety, decisions to incarcerate girls and gender-expansive youth are overwhelmingly driven by efforts to keep them safe or provide access to services that should be available to all young people in the community. Confining girls due to concerns for individual safety or service needs is out of step with best practice, exposes them to more harm, and exacerbates the very issues that brought them to court in the first place.

It’s important to note that a person’s charges do not offer a full picture of their needs and potential, and most girls charged with felonies can be successfully supported in the community. For example, through Vera's work in Santa Clara County, we found that many girls charged with felonies received risk assessment scores recommending against detention. In fact, in 2018, more than 150 girls entered Juvenile Hall despite receiving a risk assessment score that indicated detention was unnecessary; two-thirds of these girls had underlying felony charges.

Ending girls’ incarceration is an urgent matter of race equity

The girls and gender-expansive youth entering California’s youth legal facilities are overwhelmingly youth of color. This is an inequity rooted in a long history of criminalization and harm of girls of color in California–particularly Black, Latina, and Indigenous youth–and highlights the systemic failures that continue to impact Black and brown girls across the state. Latina youth make up the majority of girls’ detention admissions statewide, and together, Black and Latina girls account for more than three quarters of girls’ detention admissions.

Girls of color are more likely to be detained than their white peers and disparities are particularly stark for Black girls. Black youth make up 25 percent of all girls’ detention admissions despite accounting for only 7.8 percent of California’s youth population. 5

Girls’ arrests and detentions have declined dramatically, putting an end to girls’ incarceration well within reach

Over the past decade, California has taken significant strides to reform its juvenile legal system, working to reduce the prevalence of arrest and detention while simultaneously increasing community-based diversion programming.

Between 2012 and 2021, the number of girls’ arrests has dropped by 86 percent, outpacing declines in overall juvenile arrests, which declined by 84 percent. In 2021, law enforcement made 19,355 juvenile arrests, including 4,784 arrests of young people who were categorized as girls in the data. Consistent with national trends, arrests of girls make up about 25 percent of overall juvenile arrests.

Over the same period, the number of annual girls’ admissions to detention also declined substantially—falling by 71 percent. In 2021, there were only 1,430 girls’ detention admissions across the state. And, as noted above, nearly half of those detention admissions were on low-level charges that justice stakeholders generally agree pose no serious threat to community safety and should be diverted.

As a result of successful reform efforts, the end of girls’ incarceration in California is well within reach in the near-term for every county in the state willing to take decisive action. If detentions continue to decline at the same rate, California could hit zero girls’ detentions by 2027.

Detention is close to zero in many counties

Last year, 50 of the state’s 58 counties had an average daily population (ADP) of fewer than five girls in custody. Not surprisingly, the counties with the greatest number of girls in custody are the most populous in the state. Together, the counties with the ten highest ADPs accounted for 73 percent of the statewide ADP in September 2022. This means that continued efforts in just a few counties puts ending girls’ detention closer to a reality in California.

However, it's important to note that girls’ incarceration is not only a problem in the most populous counties—accounting for population, the highest incarceration rates are found outside of these jurisdictions. For example, the girls’ incarceration rate is higher in San Luis Obispo, Kings, and Madera than in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Orange. This is consistent with trends among the adult population whereby arrest rates and jail incarceration rates are the highest outside of large cities.

When tracking the end of girls’ incarceration, it’s important to consider how incarceration is being measured. The “daily population” is the number of girls in custody on a given day, and “detention admissions” are the number of individual admissions to a detention facility during a given period (the number of individual girls incarcerated is often fewer because some are detained more than once in a given period). The number of detention admissions is the preferred measure of girls’ incarceration because it better depicts the number of girls that are impacted.

Unfortunately, in California, county-level data for average daily population is more current and more routinely updated than annual detention admissions. But despite the important differences in these data, they share one thing in common: ending girls’ incarceration means reducing both numbers to zero.

Decision points and off-ramps: A roadmap to zero girls’ incarceration

Over the past decade, California has taken significant strides to reform its juvenile legal system, working to reduce the use of detention and increase community-based diversion programming. Girls’ arrests and detention admissions have decreased by over 70 percent since 2012, and there is now an opportunity to continue this progress. The state and its counties can work towards zero girls’ incarceration by restricting the circumstances of arrest and detainment, limiting the scope of probation supervision, and championing diversion into community-based alternatives to detention.

This work is most effective when all child-serving agencies come together to take a holistic look at their system and recognize that they each have a role to play to end girls’ incarceration in California. There are numerous opportunities for stakeholders to make decisions that eliminate the use of detention.

Police stops 11,069 In 2020, more than 11,000 girls and gender nonconforming youth were detained on curbs or in police cars.
Arrests 4,784 In 2021, nearly 70 percent of girls’ arrests were misdemeanors or status offenses.
Probation referrals 6,746 In 2021, two-thirds of girls’ probation referrals were on misdemeanors or status offenses.
Detention admissions 1,430 In 2021, nearly half of girls’ detention admissions were on misdemeanors and status offense charges.
Sustained charges 2,072 In 2021, 61 percent of girls’ sustained charges were on misdemeanors and status offenses.
Wardships 1,517 In 2021, more than 1,500 girls’ referrals resulted in wardship.

Source: Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA) Stop Data, Monthly Arrest and Citation Register, and Juvenile Court Process Statistical System.


Having already made significant progress in bringing girls’ incarceration to historic lows, California is now positioned to lead the country in taking the steps needed to further reduce—and ultimately end—the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth. California has an opportunity to interrupt the cycle of criminalization and violence that affects girls, women, and gender-expansive people—and impact generations to come.

Imagine what California would look like if, instead of investing in girls’ incarceration, we invested in their freedom. Together we can end girls' incarceration by 2027.

1 The data presented in this dashboard comes from the Juvenile Court and Probation Statistical System (JCPSS), Juvenile Detention Profile Survey (JDPS), Racial Identity Profiling Act (RIPA) datasets, and Monthly Arrest and Citation (MACR) databases. These datasets only include two categories for gender. Therefore, the numbers presented here only include young people categorized as girls. They do not include gender non-binary young people nor transgender young people who were categorized as boys in the data.

2 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),; National Research Council. Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2013).; 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,; Annie E. Casey Foundation, No Place for Kids, (Baltimore, Maryland: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2011),

3 McCarthy, Schiraldi, and Shark, “The Future of Youth Justice,” 2016; National Research Council. Reforming Juvenile Justice, 2013; Ernest, “Is Restorative Justice Effective in the U.S.?,” 2019; Annie E. Casey Foundation, No Place for Kids, 2011.

4 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Girls and the Juvenile Justice System Policy Guidance, (Washington, DC: OJJDP, 2015),; Erin Espinosa, “Research Points to Gender Inequities for Justice-Involved Youth,” Evident Change, March 5, 2020,; 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.; 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,; 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,; 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,; 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 Charles Puzzanchera, Anthony Sladky, and Wei Kang, “Easy Access to Juvenile Populations: 1990-2020,” database (Washington, DC: OJJDP, 2021),