Bias against girls has been a constant feature of juvenile justice systems since their inception. The authors of Reform and Resistance: Gender, Delinquency and America’s First Juvenile Court—a historical study of gender in the first juvenile court in Chicago in 1899found that the courts created a category of delinquency offenses known as “immorality” or “incorrigibility,” which were used almost exclusively for girls. These offenses accounted for 80 percent of girls’ cases in the Chicago court and only 2 percent of boys’ cases, as boys were usually involved in the court for larceny or other violations of laws or ordinances.Anne Meis Knupfer, Reform and Resistance: Gender, Delinquency, and America’s First Juvenile Court (New York: Routledge, 2001).  Immorality offenses in early court systems included associations with vicious or immoral persons, vagrancy, frequent attendance at saloons or pool halls, the use of indecent language, nonviolent altercations with parents, sexual behavior, and even changes in a girl’s appearance that indicated the possibility of sexual intercourse within the past few days.John R. Sutton, Stubborn Children: Controlling Delinquency in the United Sates, 1640-1981 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988); David Tanenhaus, Juvenile Justice in the Making (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Anthony M. Platt, The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977); Steven Schlossman and Stephanie Wallach, “The Crime of Precocious Sexuality: Female Juvenile Delinquency in the Progressive Era,” Harvard Educational Review 48, no. 1 (1978); and Barry C. Feld, “Violent Girls or Relabeled Status Offenders? An Alternative Interpretation of the Data,” Crime & Delinquency 55, no. 2 (2009), 241-65.

In short, immorality offenses were used to criminalize girls for their disobedience and resistance to strict gender norms of the time. (In rare instances when immorality offenses were used against boys, they were employed against those who broke gender or sexual norms, essentially criminalizing boys for being gay.Knupfer, Reform and Resistance (2001), at 81-91. ) At the heart of this sexist treatment of girls in early courts was a paternalistic view that girls who departed from feminine norms and moral standards needed the courts’ protection and intervention to prepare them to become moral women, mothers, and wives.Meda Chesney-Lind, “Judicial Paternalism and the Female Status Offender: Training Women to Know Their Place,” Crime & Delinquency 23, no. 2 (1977), 122-123. This paternalism was reflected not only in the charges that led to girls’ involvement in the courts, but also in laws that extended juvenile court jurisdiction over girls to older ages than boys. As recently as the 1970s, for example, New York State’s status offense law still applied to girls until their 18th birthdays, but to boys only until they turned 16.Francine T. Sherman, “Justice for Girls: Are We Making Progress?,” UCLA Law Review 59, no. 6 (2012), 1584-1628, 1590, Today, statutes no longer explicitly codify gender-disparate treatment in laws governing the juvenile justice system, but the remnants of these sexist structures still remain. In fact, several studies have found that girls are more likely to be detained for status offenses and other low-level offenses—and to be held for longer periods of time for such offenses—than boys.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; 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. Also see Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), “Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement: 1997-2015,” Much of the disparate treatment of girls remains rooted in the gendered expectations that “boys will be boys,” while girls are held to a different behavioral standard.Chesney-Lind, “Judicial Paternalism and the Female Status Offender” (1977), at 122.  

Much of the disparate treatment of girls remains rooted in the gendered expectations that “boys will be boys,” while girls are held to a different behavioral standard.

When girls violate conventional expectations of compliant feminine behavior by breaking rules, skipping school, violating curfew, or disobeying authority, these misbehaviors are often perceived by adults as rebellious or problematic because they conflict with the notion that girls should be passive and submissive.Ibid. at 124.  Girls whose gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation depart from societal norms are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system at an even greater rate than LGB/TGNC boys: one survey of 1,400 children across seven jurisdictions nationwide found that 40 percent of girls in detention halls identify as LGB/TGNC, compared to 13 percent of boys. Irvine and Canfield, “Reflections on New National Data,” (2016-17), at 30. For comparison, approximately 7 percent of children identify as LGB/TGNC—61 percent of whom are girls. See Christy Mallory, Brad Sears, Amira Hasenbush, and Alexandra Susman, Ensuring Access to Monitoring Programs for LBGTQ Youth (Los Angeles: The Williams Institute, 2014), 1, Also see Angela Irvine, Shannan Wilber, and Aisha Canfield, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, and/or Gender Nonconforming and Transgender Girls and Boys in the California Juvenile Justice System: A Practice Guide (Oakland, CA: Impact Justice and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2017), 3-5 (finding in the California juvenile justice system that 87.9 percent of boys reported they were straight and gender conforming compared to  48.9 percent of the girls),

Disparate treatment by race and ethnicity for girls also has roots in early juvenile courts where German, Irish, and Polish immigrant girls, as well as black girls, were overrepresented.Knupfer, Reform and Resistance (2001), at 89, 92, & 106. Black girls specifically were segregated from their white peers.Ibid.  Today, black girls, Native American girls, and Latina girls are overrepresented compared to their white peers.See Malika Saada Saar, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal, and Yasmin Vafa, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story (Washington, DC: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2015), 8,  For girls of color, gender biases in the justice system are further compounded by racialized gender stereotypes, such as those that label black girls, for example, as promiscuous, aggressive, and angry.See Monique W. Morris, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (New York: The New Press, 2016); and Melissa V. Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).  A 2017 study by the Georgetown University Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found that adults view black girls as young as five years old as more adult than their white peers, meaning, in part, that they were perceived as needing less protection and nurturing, being more independent, and knowing more about adult topics, including sex—all of which may contribute to their disparate arrest rates and involvement with the juvenile justice system.Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake, and Thalia González, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood (Washington, DC: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017), 8 (“Black girls were more likely to be viewed as behaving and seeming older than their stated age; more knowledgeable about adult topics, including sex, and more likely to take on adult roles and responsibilities than what would be expected for their age”),

Another important facet of the juvenile justice system’s treatment of girls that has its foundation in early juvenile courts is the treatment of girls who were victims of sexual abuse. In the first juvenile courts, sexually abused girls were often treated as “immoral” and blamed for enticing men to rape them or sent away to juvenile facilities ostensibly as a means to protect them from being raped again.Knupfer, Reform and Resistance (2001), at 94.  Today, concerns about girls’ safety and their experiences as victims of sexual abuse often still land them in the justice system, as research finds exceptionally high rates of sexual violence among girls in the justice system.Saar, Epstein, Rosenthal, and Vafa, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline (2015), at 7-12.  At times, the abuse itself is the direct cause of girls’ confinement, as it was in early courts.Ibid. at 19.  For example, although federal law now prohibits sex trafficking of children, defined as a “person who has not attained the age of 18 years,” girls who are commercially sexually exploited still end up in court for status offenses and delinquency charges.18 U.S.C. §1591. For a discussion of child sex trafficking as child sexual abuse, see Saar, Epstein, Rosenthal, and Vafa, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline (2015), at 19-21. Also see rights4girls, “There is No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute,”