The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) is leading a national effort to end girls’ incarceration, a goal that is ambitious, but within reach. The number of girls’ confined in any given jurisdiction is typically quite small and the majority of girls who are confined pose little or no threat to public safety. Reforms have reduced the absolute number of girls’ detentions to 45,847 nationally.Based on Vera’s analysis of OJJDP data. See Melissa Sickmund, Anthony Sladky, and Wei Kang, et al., “Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics: 1985-2014” (2017) (database), retrieved from http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezajcs/. Over the past decade, reform efforts to divert low-level offenses have dramatically driven down the country’s juvenile justice population: Most states had fewer than 150 girls in placement on the day of the last census in 2015—and many had fewer than 50 girls in placement.Based on Vera’s analysis of OJJDP data. See Melissa Sickmund, Anthony Sladky, and Wei Kang, et al., “Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement: 1997-2015” (2017) (database), retrieved from http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezajcs/. 

Still, the number of girls in the system has decreased more slowly than that of boys. Despite their small numbers, girls now make up a larger proportion of the juvenile justice population than ever before. This should not be the case. Recent juvenile justice reform efforts have explicitly focused on diverting youth who present little threat to public safety, and yet the majority of girls are still detained or placed for status offenses, technical violations, simple assault, and public order offenses excluding weapons.
 
The practice of detaining and placing girls who commit minor offenses not only goes against research on adolescent development and effective juvenile justice practice, but it also raises significant equity concerns, as girls are more likely to be held in custody and often spend more time in custody than boys for the same or similar low-level offenses.Erin M. Espinosa and Jon R. Sorensen, “The Influence of Gender and Traumatic Experiences on Length of Time Served in Juvenile Justice Settings,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 43, no. 2 (2016), 187-203; and Meda Chesney-Lind, “Judicial Enforcement of the Female Sex Role: The Family Court and the Female Delinquent,” Issues in Criminology 8, no. 2 (1973), 51-69. Further, persistent racial disparities among girls—and the stark overrepresentation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming girls—in juvenile facilities show that not all girls are treated equally.

In most cases, girls’ presence in the system for low-level offenses is driven by use of the justice system as a means of addressing girls’ unmet needs and the criminalization of behaviors related to family conflict, trauma, and violence—including domestic sex trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation. Justice systems often end up trying to address these concerns when other child-serving systems in their communities cannot or will not do so.
 
This publication builds on Vera’s Status Offense Toolkit by offering resources to help systems incorporate a focus on girls into their status offense reform process in order to eliminate girls’ involvement in the juvenile justice system for status offenses, which account for a sizeable portion of girls’ overall custody. Ending girls’ incarceration relies heavily on eliminating reliance on arrests, courts, and custody to respond to status offenses and, instead, ensuring girls are safe and supported at home and in their communities. 

For more information please visit The Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration.