Despite substantial declines in the number of children entering the juvenile justice system in recent years, girls continue to be arrested and referred to the court system regularly for non-criminal behaviors. Nationwide, girls accounted for more than a quarter of all delinquency petitions in 2014—that is, children formally referred to court for committing a crime. Yet, girls are disproportionately represented in status offense proceedings. They comprised more than 40 percent of all status offense petitions, including 55 percent of all petitions to court for running away.[]Sarah Hockenberry and Charles Puzzanchera, Juvenile Court Statistics 2014 (Washington, DC: National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2017), 73,; and analysis of OJJDP data at Melissa Sickmund, Anthony Sladky, and Wei Kang, et al., “Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics: 1985-2014” (2017) (database), retrieved from  (See Figure 1.) And, given their overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system as a whole, girls of color—namely black, Latina, and Native American girls—as well as those who are poor or LGB/TGNC, often face the brunt of this punitive response.[]Despite a lack of local and national data on LGB/TGNC children in the juvenile justice system, one survey of more than 1,400 children in six U.S. jurisdictions found that approximately 40 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system identified as LGB/TGNC, compared to approximately 14 percent of boys. See Angela Irvine and Aisha Canfield, “The Overrepresentation of LGBQ/GNCT Youth Within the Child Welfare to Juvenile Justice Crossover Population,” Journal on Gender, Social Policy, & the Law 24, no. 2 (2016), 243-61, 249 & chart 2, For more on the intersection of LGB/TGNC children and the criminal justice system see Irvine, Wilber, and Canfield, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, Gender Nonconforming, and Transgender Girls and Boys in the California Juvenile Justice System (2017); Kathryn E. W. Himmelstein and Hannah Brückner, “Criminal-Justice and School Sanctions Against Nonheterosexual Youth: A National Longitudinal Study,” Pediatrics 127, no. 1 (2011), 48-56 (finding that “nonheterosexual youth, particularly girls, have greater odds than their peers of experiencing school and criminal-justice sanctions”),; Angela Irvine, “‘We’ve Had Three of Them’: Addressing the Invisibility of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Gender Non-conforming Youth in the Juvenile Justice System,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 19, no. 3 (2010), 675-701 (national survey data showed 15 percent of children in the juvenile justice system are LGB/TGNC),; and Angela Irvine,  “LGBT/GNC Youth in Juvenile Justice,” National Council on Crime & Delinquency Blog, March 13, 2015,

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Being arrested and/or sent to court for misbehavior or perceived misbehavior can start a downward spiral that leads girls into deeper involvement in juvenile justice. Why? As explained in Vera’s Just Kids: When Misbehaving is A Crime, even referring children to court impacts their self-esteem because of the stigma attached to court involvement, which may cause them to view themselves as “bad” or “criminal,” increasing the likelihood of future delinquency.[]Mahsa Jafarian and Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, Just Kids: When Misbehaving is a Crime (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017),  The experience of being arrested and going to court for these behaviors can be traumatic, exacerbating underlying trauma and driving children to re-engage in the behavior that initially led to court involvement.[]Ibid.  For children who experience detention or juvenile justice placement as a result of a status offense, the harms are further compounded.[]National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC), The Harms of Juvenile Detention (Washington, DC: NJDC),; and Justice Policy Institute, The Dangers of Detention (Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute, 2006), 6,

National legislation recognizes the harm of involving children in the justice system for status offenses. The federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA), which outlines protections for children and families in the juvenile justice system, requires that children charged with status offenses be handled using community-based programs instead of locked facilities.[]Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-273, 42 U.S.C. §5601 et seq.  However, research has shown that past state efforts spurred by the JJDPA to deinstitutionalize children charged with status offenses have not necessarily benefited girls to the degree they should have. In fact, reforms have had unintended consequences for many girls, especially those experiencing family violence.[]See for example Lisa Pasko, “Damaged Daughters: The History of Girls’ Sexuality and the Juvenile Justice System,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 100, no. 3 (2010), 1099-1130, 1111-12 (some laws were modified to make it easier to classify females as sexual perpetrators).  For example, the JJDPA’s ban on confinement was not coupled with a requirement that states develop alternative programs or responses to children charged with status offenses. In the absence—or the perceived absence—of community-based programs to address girls’ needs, they continued to enter the court system for the same underlying status offense behaviors, but were now charged with misdemeanors instead of status offenses—a process sometimes referred to as upcharging. Several studies indicate that girls involved in physical altercations with their parents or other family members were charged with simple assault or misdemeanor assault instead of the past status offenses of incorrigibility, unruliness, or ungovernability—a consequence of status offense reform that the studies document was specific to girls.[]See Feld, “Violent Girls or Relabeled Status Offenders?” (2009), at 241 & 261; and Donna M. Bishop and Charles E. Frazier, “Gender Bias in Juvenile Justice Processing: Implications of the JJDP Act,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 82, no. 4 (1992), 1162-86. Also see Shabnam Javdani, Naomi Sadeh, and Edelyn Verona, “Gendered Social Forces: A Review of the Impact of Institutionalized Factors on Women and Girls’ Criminal Justice Trajectories,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 17, no. 2 (2011), 161-211; 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 and Mary Journal of Women and the Law 9, no. 1 (2002), 73-97.

Gender, Violence, and Trauma

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Separately, a 1980 amendment to the JJDPA known as the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception has also negatively impacted girls by providing a loophole that allows them to be placed in custody. The VCO exception, which remains in use by over two dozen states, allows judges to detain children who have not met the conditions of court orders, which typically require them to desist from the original behavior, like skipping school or running away.[]Coalition for Juvenile Justice | SOS Project, “Fact Sheet: Use of Valid Court Order: State-by-State Comparisons,”  Thus, depending on where a girl’s case is being processed, she may be subject to sanctions for a status offense that may range from a court order with specific conditions, to probation, to even a stay in detention or placement.[]Act 4 Juvenile Justice, “Fact Sheet: Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenses Core Protection,”  Once girls are under probation supervision for a case—whether a status offense case or not—minor misbehavior, including status offenses, that might otherwise have been overlooked can now result in a violation of probation, known as a technical violation, that can have more serious consequences, including detention and placement.[]Francine T. Sherman, 13 Pathways to Juvenile Detention Reform: Detention Reform and Girls—Challenges and Solutions (Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2005), 29,  In 2013, status offenses and technical violations of probation accounted for a combined 37 percent of girls’ total detentions nationwide—compared to 25 percent of boys’ detentions.[]Analysis of OJJDP data at “Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics: 1985-2014” (2017).

As a result, status offense reform to date—centered largely on changing policies to limit the use of detention or placement—has proven to be insufficient to keep girls out of the system because mechanisms put in place do not respond to their underlying needs. Similarly, the ad hoc programmatic investments that have sometimes characterized reform efforts for girls do not often address the larger structural and policy issues that drive girls into the system, including a focus on equity for decision-making by system actors who continue to refer girls to court and place them in custody for reasons that are out of step with best practices for status offenses as codified in federal law through the JJDPA. Increasingly, experts on girls in the juvenile justice system are calling for a focus on structural equity for girls—meaning a systemwide commitment to developing policies, procedures, and programs that focus on equitable treatment and responses for girls, especially those of color.[]Francine T. Sherman and Annie Balck, Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls (Portland, OR: National Crittenton Foundation, 2015), 31-32, Systematically implementing such equity strategies for girls is essential to eliminating reliance on confinement for status offenses and similar low-level behavior and ensuring that girls are safe and supported in their communities. 

Experts on girls in the juvenile justice system are calling for a focus on structural equity for girls—meaning a systemwide commitment to developing policies, procedures, and programs that focus on equitable treatment and responses for girls, especially those of color.