Gender Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System

Facebook Twitter More...

By the Honorable Chandlee Johnson Kuhn, Chief Judge
Family Court of the State of Delaware

Despite the overall decline of juvenile crime in the last decade, arrest rates for girls have been static as compared to boys. Due to the overall higher arrest rates for boys, more resources have been deployed towards their diversion from the juvenile justice system. While pockets of effective programming for girls have been created, the juvenile justice system as a whole has yet to develop consistent gender-specific strategies that will address the critical needs of adolescent girls. In 2006, Delaware drafted a Blue Print for Change through the Delaware Girls Initiative to begin to address the gender disparities and needs in our Juvenile Justice system.

Research on the adolescent brain provides new insights about juvenile behavior that objectively shows how female brain development differs from that of the male brain. It is increasingly clear that some juvenile justice approaches geared towards boys are not as effective for girls and in many instances such programming triggers girls’ prior traumatic experiences.

Recent studies show that there are several factors that professionals should understand and address when dealing with girls at all stages of the juvenile justice process. Girls are far more likely to have a history of abuse or other form of trauma than boys, which was revealed in the gender brief Improving Law Enforcement Responses to Adolescent Girls. The report contained staggering numbers. 70% of girls in juvenile justice have been exposed to trauma; 60% report have been raped or are in danger of being raped; 65% have had Post Traumatic Stress symptoms at some point in their life; 76% report having witnessed someone killed or severely injured; 74% report having been in danger of being hurt or having suffered physical injury.

Girls are charged and detained for low level offenses at disproportionate rates as compared to boys. This is true in Delaware, where in the 2010-2011 school year 90% of female arrests on school property are related to fighting or other disorderly behavior. (Dr. Kerrin Wolf, An Exploration of School Resource Officer Arrests in Delaware.) Low level offenses include what are considered status offenses, such as truancy, underage alcohol violations, running away, and curfew violations. The Emerging Issues Policy Series on Girls, Status Offenses and the Need for a Less Punitive and More Empowering Approach states: “between 1995 and 2009 the number of petitioned cases for curfew violations for girls grew by 23% vs. only 1% for boys. The number of petitioned cases for liquor law violations for girls grew by 41% vs. only 6% for boys. During that same period, the number of petitioned runaway cases for girls decreased by 25%, yet girls still comprised 58% of all petitioned runaway cases in 2009. In addition, the truancy case rate for girls was higher than the rate for all other status offense categories.”  

Also noted in the series, “once an arrest is made or a petition is filed, girls are detained for status offenses at a disproportionate rate as compared to boys. Girls are also more likely than boys to be returned to detention for technical violations. Running away and responses to witnessing or suffering from domestic violence also tend to lead to system involvement and locked detention.”

In response to girls’ disparate treatment, the Delaware Girls Initiative conducted trainings, drafted a training manual and produced a video titled You Can’t Just Paint It Pink, for system partners; including judges, lawyers, and case managers, in order that they might explore better tools to address the complex needs girls bring to the system. The Delaware Girls Initiative addresses the fact that the juvenile justice system was originally designed to deal with the problems of boys and young men and in doing so neglected the gender-specific programming and treatment needs of girls and young women. These differences require separate research and planning to meet the needs of girls enmeshed in a system designed to manage and serve a predominately male population.

As noted in the series “while a federal focus on girls in the juvenile system has spurred research and program development in the field, the availability of gender-specific interventions for girls still lags well behind the availability of interventions originally designed with boys in mind. A continuum of gender-responsive programs and practices are necessary to ensure that girls receive the attention and treatment they need. The continuum, however, must be developed through federal, state, and local laws and policies that divert girls from the courts in the first instance, and limit their system involvement to the greatest extent possible.”

Chief Judge Kuhn served as a Judge in the Family Court of the State of Delaware from 1998 until her appointment to Chief Judge of Family Court in 2003. Prior to her appointment to Family Court, Chief Judge Kuhn completed a judicial clerkship with the Delaware Supreme Court and practiced in the areas of corporate and commercial litigation and family law from 1989 to 1998. She is active in the areas of juvenile justice, domestic violence prevention and the prevention of child abuse. She has implemented many successful programs within the Family Court during her tenure as Chief Judge. She founded the Delaware Girls Initiative, which is now a self-funded organization focused on addressing gender specific programming for Delaware’s at-risk girls. In 2009 Chief Judge Kuhn initiated Gun Court in Delaware’s Family Court with the support and cooperation of the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Defenders’ Office and the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families. More recently, Chief Judge Kuhn worked with Delaware’s Attorney General and Child Advocate in bringing the Stewards of Children training program to all Delaware Family Court employees.