Are We Reaching Young Women Most at Need in the Juvenile Justice System?

The overall rate of juvenile incarceration in the US has fallen 41 percent since its peak in 1995. The rate of arrests of young women, however, is falling less slowly than the decline in arrests of young men. Why the difference in outcomes for young men and young women? A study from the January issue of Crime and Delinquency examines the different characteristics of female youths who enter the juvenile justice system, the services that each subgroup receives, and their adult outcomes. The researchers find that some of the young women least likely to receive supportive services in the juvenile justice system are most at risk for adverse outcomes as adults.

Each year, more than 300,000 young women enter the juvenile justice system. Many factors are associated with juvenile delinquency in young women, including maltreatment in childhood, poverty, family situation, foster care, substance abuse, race, and residence in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The authors explain that there is significant overlap in risk factors for young women and risk factors for young men, but they affect young women at different rates and in different ways. For example, although childhood maltreatment and mental health problems like depression are shared risk factors for young men and young women, they are more prevalent in young women. This underscores the need for more support services that address the particular needs of at-risk young women in order to prevent them from becoming repeat offenders and from experiencing problematic adult outcomes later in life.

Female juvenile delinquency can lead, perhaps unsurprisingly, to problematic adult outcomes for women. In their study, the researchers examined five groups of young women. Groups were selected using a combination of factors experienced years earlier as children, including household income, home neighborhood, maltreatment, and race. The authors then examined these groups and their association with support services received while in the juvenile justice system. Finally, the authors looked at the level of problematic adult outcomes experienced by each group, including income assistance in adulthood, recidivism, mental health problems, and substance abuse.

The authors found that adult participation in federal assistance programs varied according to the demographics and childhood experiences of each group.

One group at high risk of adverse adult outcomes was comprised of young women from low-income households living in poor, urban areas. This group also experienced high rates of maltreatment as children, had problems with substance abuse, recidivism, and adolescent motherhood. They also had the second highest incidence of the problematic adult outcomes outlined above, notably a 25.66 percent participation in TANF, a federal program that provides income assistance.

Another high-need group was characterized by a high rate of income assistance in childhood, but a lack of childhood maltreatment. As adults, they displayed similarly troubling outcomes as the group from urban, low-income households who experienced childhood maltreatment. Only three percent of the group without childhood maltreatment received supportive services from the juvenile justice system. Individuals in this group were found to be most likely to participate in TANF and have future involvement with the criminal justice system.

The group least at risk for negative adult outcomes included mostly white young women from households with a relatively higher income than the rest of the sample. They received a higher rate of service than other, needier groups. This shows that there is a need for a more equitable division of resources and careful consideration of approaches that are flexible enough to address the complex needs of a diverse population.

While services and prevention directed toward at-risk youth appear to have made strides for young men, this study suggests a need for a closer look at the population of young women. Policy makers should consider a more thoughtful view of the motivations and reasons that young women become juvenile offenders, and take a more nuanced approach to offering preventative services. A deeper consideration of at-risk populations could lead to a more efficient allocation of publicly funded resources and improve adult outcomes for young women in the juvenile justice system.

Article Source: Cheryl Lyn Bright, Patricia L. Kohl, and Melissa Johnson-Reid, “Females in the Juvenile Justice System: Who Are They and How Do They Fare?,” Crime & Delinquency (January 2014).

Feature Photo: (Tasumi1968)'
Louise Geraghty
Louise Geraghty is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in child and family policy.

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