For decades, the gender assumptions implicit in the U.S. juvenile justice system were simple and serviceable: Since boys in the system vastly outnumbered girls, making the system work for boys was tantamount to making the system work — period. And since the girls in the system were often runaways seen as needing protection more than anything else, keeping girls off the street passed for a thoughtful response to their needs. Two developments of recent years, however, have moved gender analysis toward the center of program design and policymaking.
First, the system is dealing with many more girls. Second, many more of those girls are involved in destructive and dangerous behavior. Those calling for a new understanding of gender in juvenile justice agree on the type of superficial response that won’t work: “You can’t just paint the walls pink,” says James Bell of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, and call it a “girls program.” Instead, Bell and others argue, juvenile justice for girls needs to understand the patterns and experiences that bring girls into the system. In many cases, they say, those patterns and experiences are quite different from those of boys. And programs — which range from residential detention facilities to community centers that aim to help young people stay out of the system — should change as a result.
A widespread, apparently gender-neutral preference for strict attendance policies at youth programs illustrates the point. To promote responsibility and commitment, many programs eject participants for tardiness or absence, which sometimes counts as a parole violation. But according to Francine Sherman of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College Law School, practitioners and researchers alike have discovered that at-risk girls have a propensity for coping with trauma or stress by running away. So a strict attendance policy that might get boys to focus on the program could end up driving girls out entirely. More practically, says Lateefah Simon of the Center for Young Women’s Development, a number of girls have babies. Their good-faith efforts to cope with a sick baby or unreliable child-care can mean absences that provoke an inappropriately rigid reaction. Without a “gender-specific understanding,” says Simon, “it’s hard to know how to respond.”
Girls’ mental health is another case in point. Sherman says studies find that up to 70 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system are depressed or have post-traumatic stress disorder, conditions that may reflect a high incidence of sexual abuse before reaching the system. To miss that, says Sherman, would limit the prospects for helping girls increase their focus and motivation. In any of these examples, the argument is not that girls and boys are innately different. Rather, they tend to have different experiences — one set more common for girls and another for boys — that call for programs specifically tailored to each.