chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Girls in the Juvenile Justice System: The Case for Girls' Courts

Sarah Klein


  • The American juvenile justice system, historically designed with male offenders in mind, is facing challenges due to an apparent rise in violent and assaultive crimes by females.
  • Despite recognizing the severity of female juvenile delinquency, stakeholders feel frustrated and ill-equipped to handle these cases effectively, often resulting in inadequate management and unresolved core issues.
  • There is a push for a new approach in juvenile justice that acknowledges the unique paths to violence for females, including higher rates of mental health issues and histories of victimization.
  • Girls' courts aim to provide a supportive environment focusing on rehabilitation and empowerment, requiring collaborative efforts among various stakeholders to implement programs ultimately aiming to break the cycle of female juvenile delinquency.
Girls in the Juvenile Justice System: The Case for Girls' Courts
Justin Paget via Getty Images

Historically speaking, the American juvenile justice system formed in a manner intended to cater predominantly to male offenders. In recent years, however, the number of girls arrested for violent and assaultive crimes seems to have increased dramatically. "Justice by Gender," Crim. Just. Sec. Newsl., ABA and Nat'l Bar Ass'n, 2001. Whether this perceived increase is due to changes in the law, police arrest policies, court responses, or an actual increase in violence among females is a matter of great debate among academics and juvenile justice system stakeholders alike. Although some have begun to research the unique causes of female violence and alternatives to the current system, most individuals continue to skirt the issue while voyeuristically watching viral YouTube videos of "girl fights" and shaking their heads.

The same lack of action has paralyzed even those who recognize the seriousness of the issue. Many juvenile justice system stakeholders enmeshed in the system can tell horror stories about girl-fight cases they have seen. What starts out as name-calling and bad-mouthing progresses into all-out wars between groups of girls where they try to scar each other's faces with knives and razor blades. Sometimes the girls' mothers even get involved, fighting alongside their daughters.

The unique nature of these incidents and lack of appropriate training and resources make many juvenile justice system stakeholders feel frustrated and unequipped to properly and consistently manage these cases. Hon. Estelle B. Richman et al., Joint Position Statement on Juvenile Justice System Responsiveness to the Unique Needs of Girls, Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency (2009). The end result is often a quick dismissal or inadequate managing of these cases, leaving the core issues unresolved. Unfortunately, this results in the same girls coming back to court time and again for similar and escalating offenses, both as juveniles and as adult women. Even when these females do not formally re-enter the justice system, many do not lead productive, law-abiding lives. Without the proper resources, many get swept up in a lifestyle that puts them in danger of becoming a crime victim or domestic violence victim in the future. What we need to do is provide appropriate services that can assist these females in starting their adult lives on the right path. Ideally, we need to provide them with a fresh outlook and a skill set to deal with life's issues, and a clean record to facilitate obtaining an education and gainful employment in the future. Furthermore, we need to prepare these females to successfully parent and raise the next generation of children and equip them with the tools to keep their future children out of trouble with the law. Margaret A. Zahn et al., "Causes and Correlates of Girls' Delinquency,"Dep't of Just., Off. of Juv. Just. and Delinq. Prevention (2010).

Obviously, violent, assaultive behavior is serious no matter the gender of the defendant; no one is advocating for the courts to go easy on violent females. What is really needed is a new approach to juvenile justice that accounts for females' different paths to violence. The two most important factors that separate violent female offenders from their male counterparts are (1) females' higher rates of mental health issues, such as anger, depression, and suicidal thinking; and (2) the fact that female offenders more often have histories of victimization, violence, and abuse than males. Thus, if we want to understand and effectively treat females who have been arrested or convicted of assaultive and violent behavior, we need to adequately address these issues. Zahn et al, supra. We must also consider related factors, including the fact that females tend to be more prone to self-destructive behaviors in their offenses and that they experience different patterns of drug use and abuse. Another factor that needs to be considered is that females are usually affected differently by relationships than males are, whether those relationships are romantic, sexual, friendly, or familial. Females also experience very different societal reactions to their behavior. Combined, all of these factors produce a unique female experience that our current system is not equipped to properly address.

Fortunately, some districts in states such as Hawaii and California have begun to create "girls' courts" designed to address these systemic inadequacies. Utilizing research from academic organizations, such as the Girls Study Group, and promoted by governmental proposals and demonstrations of support from groups, such as the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency's Female Services Subcommittee, other districts are now beginning to formulate ideas for their own girls' courts as well. While these courts are not entirely uniform in terms of the types of girls they serve, their programming, and the resulting outcomes, they all have a desire to create trauma-informed care environments that focus on providing rehabilitative services in addition to appropriate legal sanctions. Richman et al., supra. These types of courts also provide opportunities for girls to build self-confidence and self-efficacy and rebuild relationships with friends, family, significant others, and teachers. Zahn et al., supra.

As it stands, most existing juvenile courts and programs are not designed to provide these types of comprehensive services. Thus, implementing girls' courts around the country will require significant collaboration among all types of stakeholders ranging from district attorneys, public defenders, departments of human services, courts, probation officers, non-profits, foundations, community-based services, and the federal government. Richman et al., supra. When these agencies collaborate, the result can be effective strength-based programming. Examples of some of the types of programs needed include conflict-resolution and mediation workshops, self-confidence and empowerment workshops, healthy relationship workshops, educational advocacy, mother-daughter counseling and retreats, nutrition education, mental-health treatment, drug-and-alcohol treatment, group community-service projects, job-skills and life-skills training, pregnancy prevention and parenting-skills education, domestic violence prevention workshops, and visits or video-conferences with adult women inmates. Zahn et al., supra; Richman et al., supra; ABA, supra; Haw. Girls Ct..

Also vital to the success of girls' courts is having an all or almost all-female staff (including lawyers, judges, therapists, mentors). By providing girls with adult models of healthy, law-abiding behavior, the hope is that participants will realize alternatives to their current behavior, and feel empowered to turn their own lives around.

Another unique factor to consider is the inclusion of female victims in girls' court programming. Juvenile justice system stakeholders know that "girl fight" cases are more complicated than often is acknowledged and frequently retaliatory in nature. The identification and labeling of parties as "defendants" and "complainants" often masks the nuanced dynamics at play. Due to the convoluted nature of the issues that lead to these fights, in addition to the complications inherent in determining who is at fault, it is vital to include the victims in the process as much as possible.

A successful girls' court should allow for and anticipate the arrest of all individuals involved in a mutual girl fight to more adequately manage these complicated incidents. In appropriate circumstances where there is a distinction between the defendant and juvenile female victim, girls' courts should attempt to educate said victims by using a modified portion of the girls' court programming.

While this may sound like a tall order, the task doesn't have to be as daunting as you might think. In fact, many of these programs and services already exist in cities and states around the country and can be offered free of charge to appropriate participants; however, they are not currently being utilized to their full capacity. In many cases, existing services that are currently used to treat female offenders can simply be reorganized and revamped to provide the necessary types of programs.

For girls' courts that allow girls to stay in their homes while receiving treatment, programming is often cheaper than placement in a juvenile detention facility. In addition, girls' courts can streamline and minimize the work of the probation officers, since, in all likelihood, a limited number will focus solely on the girls' court cases, freeing up the rest. The limited meeting days and times in court can also free up the court's docket by removing complex, multi-defendant cases from other courtrooms. The small fee the defendants will likely be required to pay for the program (in addition to restitution) will also raise revenue that can be used to offset the cost of girls' court programming. Additionally, group work components can be used to save the city or district money because it will not always have to pay for individual services for each defendant. Similarly, not every therapy session will necessarily require the presence of a therapist. Under the supervision of the probation department and other partner agencies, girls' court participants can be taught to role-play and self-regulate by learning techniques for working through their own problems.

In addition, certain girls' courts do not require teachers or police officers involved in the case to attend court hearings, which can save the city or district from paying excess wages to government employees who are unable to perform their regular jobs while in court. The most significant monetary savings will be long-term in that girls' courts will hopefully prevent participants and their children from becoming involved with either the juvenile or criminal justice systems in the future. That said, the most important effects of girls' courts will most likely not be monetary, but will instead concern the impact they will have on the lives of the participants. By helping these struggling, misguided females to develop self-confidence, learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully, and foster a positive peer culture, girls' courts have the potential to help stop the destructive cycle of female violence for good.