New Findings Show Sharp Decline in Girls in Juvenile Justice System

While the overall share of girls arrested is decreasing, those in the system are still predominantly young girls of color.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) released its newest findings on the number of girls in the country’s juvenile justice system this week, finding a sharp decline in the number of girls arrested overall—the lowest rate in three decades. However, the girls who are system-involved are disproportionately young girls of color.

The new bulletin finds that girls account for 269,900 of the total 921,600 arrests of persons younger than 18—less than one-third of total youth arrests. Despite this decrease, more than half of all female cases still involved Black or Latinx youth highlighting the ongoing racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

With this progress, we can clearly see the continued gaps in our youth justice system,” said Liz Ryan, President and CEO of the Youth First Initiative. “Young girls of color are still being disproportionately policed and arrested, often for reasons that simply don’t merit arrest or involvement with the system.  Reform must include a focus on racial equity for young people . We need an end to youth incarceration-- and a shift to more supportive environments for all kids.”

The report finds that:

  • In 2015, more than half (53%) of all delinquency cases involving girls were handled informally, compared with 42% of cases involving boys
  •  Fifty-four percent of female cases handled in 2015 involved girls of color
  • In 2015, black females accounted for 15% of the female youth population, but their share of the female delinquency caseload was higher (35%)
  •  Delinquency cases involving black girls in 2015 were about 3x more likely to be referred to juvenile court than cases involving their white and Hispanic peers.
  • Females accounted for a relatively large share of youth arrests involving prostitution-related offenses (76%), larceny-theft (40%), liquor law violations (40%), simple assault (37%), and disorderly conduct (35%), but a much smaller share of violent offenses.

Across the country, youth justice reform advocates and young people are working to close youth prisons and build out a full range of community-based supports and services.  The new findings highlight the gender-based differences in the juvenile justice system--differences that can better shape the future of youth justice reform. Girls accounted for a substantial share of youth arrests involving larceny-theft, liquor law violations, simple assault, disorderly conduct, and prostitution-related offenses -- but a very low share of violent offenses. By understanding these discrepancies, community-based alternatives to incarceration for girls can be  tailor-made to support and rehabilitate young girls without locking them up.

Advocacy groups campaigning for an end to youth incarceration in favor of community-based alternatives that are far better at healing trauma, helping young people get back on track, and keeping communities safe are succeeding  in ending their states’ reliance on incarcerating young girls. Connecticut, for example, stopped incarcerating girls at their only youth prison before closing it down entirely last year. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers has vowed to close the Copper Lake School for Girls, and New Jersey has promised the same for the Hayes Female Secure Care and Intake Facility. 


See additional quotes from leaders of some of these state campaigns:

“This new data makes clear what we all have long known--the youth justice system has a race problem. Now it’s time for states like Virginia to take action to combat these disparities. A good first step: close the Bon Air facility, which continues to incarcerate young girls. We don’t need new prisons, we need the state to invest in our communities -- that’s what real progress looks like.”

“A reduction in the number of girls – and youth, in general -- incarcerated is progress, but we have a long way to go to tackle the systemic issues still overwhelming the youth justice system. Young girls of color still make up the majority of these arrests, just as young people of color continue to dominate the number of detained and committed youth in general -- and that is unacceptable. In New Jersey, we see these racial disparities all too clearly: While we only have eight committed girls in our state, the majority of them are girls of color. New Jersey must double-down on its efforts to reduce the glaring racial disparities in policing and arrests, and closing down the Hayes girls prison immediately is a crucial step in that process.”

“This new data proves that states are finally listening to our demands and moving away from incarcerating girls. Through our continued advocacy work, our own state ended their reliance youth incarceration, when they closed Connecticut Juvenile Training School last year. Now we must continue that progress by investing in community-based solutions and programs for young people. It’s time for the rest of the country to join the movement to end youth incarceration.”


For more information and to view the bulletin, click here.


About Youth First

The Youth First Initiative works to end youth incarceration, close youth prisons, and invest in community-based programs, services and opportunities for youth. To meet this crisis head on, the Youth First Initiative is elevating awareness about the negative impacts of incarcerating youth, creating a national dialogue about the need to invest in alternatives, not incarceration for youth, and working with youth, families and allies on the local and national level to build a critical mass of Americans calling for change.

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