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Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

Literature Review: A product of the Model Programs Guide
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Historically, girls have been less likely than boys to become involved in the juvenile justice system (Ehrmann, Hyland, and Puzzanchera, 2019; Statistical Briefing Book, 2022). Increases in the proportion of cases involving girls during the 1990s led to increased attention on the needs of girls in the system and on how their needs may differ from boys’. Although girls are still underrepresented in most stages of the juvenile justice system, their representation is larger today than in the past (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023; Statistical Briefing Book, 2022; Puzzanchera, 2021). This remains the case even during large decreases in the number of both boys and girls involved in the justice system during the past few decades (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023; Statistical Briefing Book, 2022).

Some researchers have posited that girls’ unique needs are not always met when they become involved in the juvenile justice system because of the emphasis on serving boys, who are overrepresented in almost all areas of juvenile justice (Anderson et al., 2019; Foley, 2008; Garcia and Lane, 2010; Goodkind, 2005). Thus, several gender-specific approaches have been designed, implemented, and evaluated.

This review summarizes trends in the involvement of girls in the juvenile justice system, how their contact with the system has changed over time, their unique risk factors and needs, theoretical frameworks explaining girls’ involvement in delinquency and the juvenile justice system, and interventions that may lead to positive outcomes for girls.

Girls have historically been less likely than boys to become involved in the juvenile justice system, especially at the “deeper end” of the system involving secure residential placement and transfer to adult court (Ehrmann, Hyland, and Puzzanchera, 2019). This gender gap also exists in the adult system and has been referred to as “one of the most enduring findings in criminology” (O’Neil, 2020). During the 1990s, the proportion of girls involved in the juvenile justice system began to increase, and continues to increase in some stages of the system, including arrests.


The number of juvenile arrests has declined considerably since its peak in the mid-1990s and was at its lowest level in 2020 since at least 1980. Arrest rates for girls also have declined. The arrest rate for girls peaked in 1996 at 4,030 arrests per 100,000 girls. This rate declined to about 3,400 arrests per 100,000 girls from 2000 through 2008 and then began to drop again. By 2020 the juvenile arrest rate for girls was 756 per 100,000 girls (see Figure 1).

At the same time, the proportion of juvenile arrests that involved girls has steadily increased. This is in part because between 1980 and the late 1990s increases in girls’ arrest rates outpaced increases in boys’ arrest rates. Then in the 2000s and 2010s, and so far in the 2020s, girls’ arrest rates have declined less than boys’ arrest rates. In 1980 the girls’ arrest rate was about 22 percent of the boys’ arrest rate (2,300 per 100,000 for girls, compared with 10,321 per 100,000 for boys) [see the relative rates in Figure 1]. In other words, in 1980, boys were about 4½ times as likely as girls to be arrested. In 2019 the girls’ arrest rate was 46 percent of the boys’ arrest rate (1,274 per 100,000 girls, compared with 2,783 per 100,000 boys), which was the closest it’s been to the boys’ rate since at least 1980. In other words, the male arrest rate was 2.2 times greater than the female arrest rate in 2019. In 2020 the female arrest rate was 43 percent of the male rate (756 per 100,000, compared with 1,763 per 100,000), which means that the male arrest rate was 2.3 times the female arrest rate in 2020 [Statistical Briefing Book, 2022; Puzzanchera, 2021].

Figure 1. Juvenile Arrest Rates by Gender, 1980-2020

Juvenile Court

There was a large decline in both male and female delinquency cases between 2005 and 2020. Involvement of boys exceeded that of girls across all age groups and all offense categories (e.g., person, property, drug, and public order offenses). In 2020, girls were involved in 27 percent of the 508,400 delinquency cases referred to court (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023). This includes 30 percent of person offenses, 27 percent of the public order offenses, 26 percent of the drug offenses, and 24 percent of the property offenses (Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022). When looking only at the 136,314 cases involving girls, 39 percent were for person offenses, 28 percent for property offenses, 22 percent for public order offenses, and 11 percent for drug offenses (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023).

After being referred to court for delinquency cases, girls are less likely than boys to be petitioned (46 percent of the time, compared with 57 percent) and, alternatively, more likely to be informally handled (54 percent of the time for girls, compared with 43 percent of the time for boys). After petition, cases involving girls were less likely to result in a delinquency adjudication than cases involving boys (43 percent, compared with 50 percent). After adjudication, cases involving girls were less likely than cases involving boys to result in out-of-home placement at disposition (20 percent, compared with 28 percent). Girls were also less likely than boys to be transferred to adult court (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023).

Compared with delinquency cases, girls accounted for a substantially larger proportion of petitioned status offense cases. Status offenses are acts that are illegal because the persons committing them are of juvenile status (e.g., truancy, running away from home, curfew violations). In 2020, girls accounted for 44 percent of the estimated 57,700 juvenile court status offense caseload. Similar to boys, the most-common status offense for girls was truancy. When looking only at the status offense cases involving girls, 59 percent were for truancy, 14 percent were for running away, 10 percent were for liquor law violations, 8 percent were for ungovernability, 3 percent were for curfew violations, and 5 percent were listed as miscellaneous. Between 2005 and 2020, the number of petitioned status offense cases decreased about 70 percent for both girls and boys (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023). For more information, see the Model Programs Guide (MPG) literature review on Status Offenders.

Transfer to Adult Court

One of the most important decisions made in court about youth cases is whether a case should proceed in the juvenile court system or in the criminal (adult) justice system. There are several ways that a juvenile case is transferred to criminal court, including judicial waiver (discretionary, mandatory, and presumptive), statutory exclusion, and prosecutorial discretion (Keenen, 2021; Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023). National data are available for youths transferred to adult court through judicial waiver, but not through the other mechanisms. In 2020, about 200 girls in the United States were transferred to adult court through judicial waiver, representing about 7 percent of all youths transferred to adult court through judicial waiver (compared with boys, who made up 93 percent of waivers) [Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022]. From 2005 to 2020, the number of girls transferred to the adult system through judicial waiver decreased by about two thirds (from about 602 to about 200) [Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022].

Secure Detention and Commitment

In 2019, there were 5,415 girls in the juvenile residential population, which represented 15 percent of the total residential population (Sickmund et al., 2021). Fifty-five percent of the girls were in the committed population (that is, in placement as part of a court-ordered disposition); 42 percent were in the detained population (i.e., juveniles held while awaiting their transfer, trial, adjudication, or disposition placement after adjudication); 2 percent were part of the diversion population (juveniles sent to a residential facility in lieu of adjudication as part of a diversion agreement), and 2 percent were in some other type (or unknown).

From 2001 to 2019, the number of girls in the detained population decreased 56 percent, and the number of girls in the committed population decreased 70 percent (Sickmund et al., 2021). Although the number of girls in residential placement has declined during the past 20 years, their proportion of the placement population has remained stable at about 15 percent (while boys have accounted for about 85 percent of the residential population during this time) [Hockenberry, 2022].

In 2019, 91 percent of the girls in residential placement had been adjudicated for delinquency offenses and 9 percent for status offenses. More specifically, 37 percent were adjudicated for person offenses, 21 percent for technical violations, 19 percent for property offense, 9 percent for public order offenses, 9 percent for status offenses, and 5 percent for drug offenses (Sickmund et al., 2021).

The Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement provides information on more than 30 specific types and categories of offenses. In 2019, girls were underrepresented in juvenile residential facilities across all offense categories except running away. While there were more girls held for running away than boys, fewer than 3 percent of the girls in the residential population had running away as their most serious charge. Girls constituted less than 10 percent of the residential population whose most serious charges were sexual assault, weapons offenses, robbery, burglary, trafficking, or criminal homicide. For example, in 2019, there were 858 boys in the residential population for criminal homicide, compared with 83 girls (that is, 91 percent of the youths in residential placement charged with criminal homicide were boys, while 9 percent were girls). Girls constituted between 30 percent and 50 percent of the residential population whose most serious offenses were curfew violation, truancy, status offenses overall, or other status offenses. However, these offenses tend to have the fewest number of youths. For example, in 2019, there were 194 boys and 112 girls in the residential population with truancy as their most serious charge.

For more information about residential programs, see the MPG literature review Residential Programs.


Though national juvenile recidivism rates are not available (Casey and Siennick, 2022; Development Services Group, Inc., 2017), most analyses of state, local, and programmatic sources find that girls are less likely to recidivate then boys after involvement in the juvenile justice system (e.g., Baglivio, 2009; Baglivio and Wolff, 2020; Indiana Department of Correction, 2021; Lehmann, Meldrum, and Greenwald, 2020; Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, 2022; Ryan, Williams, and Courtney, 2013). For example, a study of more than 28,000 juveniles in the Florida Juvenile Justice System found that girls were less likely than boys both to be rearrested and reconvicted after system involvement (Baglivio and Wolff, 2020). Analysis of recidivism 1 year after discharge from juvenile commitment in Massachusetts found that the recidivism rate was 28 percent for boys and 11 percent for girls, and that in the past 6 years recidivism rates for girls were never more than 40 percent of the boys’ rate (Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, 2022). Similarly, 1-year recidivism rates for justice system–involved youths in Oregon in 2020 were 28 percent for boys and 18 percent for girls (Oregon Youth Authority, 2021). Several program evaluations also have found that boys are more likely than girls to recidivate (e.g., Day, Zahn, and Tichavsky, 2015; Pullman et al., 2006; Trupin et al., 2011).

Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Girls of color are more likely than white girls to be arrested and subsequently go deeper into the juvenile justice system (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023; Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2021; Sickmund et al., 2022). Black girls and American Indian girls tend to be most affected by racial disparities. In 2020, Black, non-Hispanic girls made up 14.7 percent of girls ages 10 to 17 in the United States, but they accounted for 34.0 percent of the girls referred to juvenile court, 36.5 percent of the girls sent to residential facilities, and 39.7 percent of the girls transferred to adult court (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2021; Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022). A 1-day count of girls in residential placement in 2019 indicated that Black girls made up 34.8 percent of girls in the residential placement population, including 37.2 percent of the detained population and 33.3 percent of the committed population (Sickmund et al., 2022). Similarly, American Indian girls made up only 1.0 percent of the girls ages 10 to 17 in the United States in 2019 but constituted 3.3 percent of the girls in the residential placement population (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2021; Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022). Asian girls are underrepresented in the juvenile justice system: they make up 6 percent of the girls in the U.S. youth population ages 10–17, but less than 2 percent of the female cases in juvenile court, less than 1 percent of the girls transferred to adult court, and less than 1 percent of the girls in residential placement (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023; Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022; Sickmund et al., 2022).

There is also some evidence to suggest that within different racial and ethnic groups, there are differences in disparities by gender. Specifically, American Indian girls are more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system than girls of other races and ethnicities. For example, among youths sent to juvenile court in 2019 for delinquency cases, girls constituted 25.8 percent of the Hispanic cases, 27.9 percent of the Black cases, 28.7 percent of the Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander cases, 28.2 percent of the white cases, and 32.5 percent of the American Indian cases (Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022). Among the juvenile residential population in 2019, girls made up 10.1 percent of the Pacific Islander population, 12.6 percent of the Black population, 14.7 percent of the Hispanic population, 16.9 percent of the white population, 17.2 of the Asian population, and 24.1 percent of the American Indian population (Sickmund et al., 2022).

For more information, please see the MPG literature review on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Juvenile Justice Processing.

Some researchers and theorists have found that traditional criminological research is deficient in explaining girls’ and women’s crime and delinquency, giving a low priority to the role of gender in traditional theoretical frameworks (Belknap and Holsinger, 2006; Daly et al., 2002; Daly and Chesney–Lind, 1988). Theorists have given several reasons justifying gender-specific frameworks, including biological differences, differences in how girls and boys are socialized, and differences in delinquent behavior, sexism, and potentially different pathways into delinquency and criminality (Belknap and Holsinger, 2006; Chesney–Lind, 2006; Jones et al., 2014; Liu and Miller, 2020; Shoemaker, 2018). Thus, gender-specific theories and models have emerged. Though general theories of crime and delinquency also are used for girls, this section provides information related to a few of the gender-specific theoretical positions that characterize much of the literature related to girls in the juvenile justice system.

Feminist Pathways Theories

Feminist criminology began during the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1970s and early 1980s (Chesney–Lind, 2006). In terms of explaining girls’ involvement in delinquent behaviors, contemporary feminist criminology emphasizes “the complexity, tentativeness, and variability with which individuals, particularly youths, negotiate (and resist) gender identity” (Chesney–Lind, 2006:8). This contrasts with other approaches that may introduce gender only as a variable within a larger analysis, if at all (Chesney–Lind, 2006). Feminist theories underscore the differences between the experiences of girls and boys as a crucial component to understanding delinquency and emphasize early events in a girl’s life, such as abuse and neglect, as significant risk factors for girls’ delinquent behavior (Belknap and Holsinger, 2006;Daly, 1992; Foley, 2008; Holsinger, 2000; Jones et al., 2014; Petersen, Salisbury, and Sundt, 2015; Sutton and Simons, 2021). Some feminist criminologists argue that, while girls and boys may face similar risk factors, their cognitive and emotional responses to these problems are different.

Relational–Cultural Theory

Relational–cultural theory, which was developed initially to understand women’s psychological experiences, emphasizes the centrality of relationships in people’s lives (Comstock et al., 2008; Jordan and Hartling, 2002; Miller, 1976). Several researchers have used this model of human development to explain girls’ aggressive and delinquent behaviors and develop programming for girls (e.g., Cannon et al., 2012; Gies et al., 2015; Lenz, Speciale, and Aguilar, 2012). They posit that relationships may play a unique role in the lives of girls.

Judicial Paternalism

Judicial paternalism focuses on the role of official decisionmakers and suggests that justice systems are gendered institutions with traditional patriarchal norms, which treat girls differently from boys. One of the main interpretations of judicial paternalism is chivalry, which results in girls being treated more leniently than boys (Bishop and Frazier, 1992; Crew, 1991; Gomez, 2022; Gruhl, Welch, and Spohn, 1984). Another interpretation of judicial paternalism is the “evil woman” hypothesis, which posits that girls receive harsher treatment for certain crimes when they violate gender norms (Erez, 1992; Kempf–Leonard and Johansson, 2007; Spivak et al., 2014). Like paternalism, the masculinization framework explains the simplistic notions of “good” and “bad” femininity, which “permit the demonization of some girls and women if they stray from the path of “true” (passive, controlled, and constrained) “womanhood” (Chesney–Lind, 2006).

The Intersectionality Theoretical Framework

The intersectionality theoretical framework highlights the importance of how gender, race, and class influence life course outcomes, especially as they relate to privilege and oppression (Krumer–Nevo and Komem, 2013; Leiber, Brubaker, and Fox, 2009; Potter, 2013; Potter, 2006). The intersectionality framework considers gender and race simultaneously, rather than separating each into individual categories and assuming that all individuals within each category share the same experiences (Leiber, Brubaker, and Fox, 2009). The intersectional perspective argues that girls of color are likely to be treated differently in the juvenile justice system, compared with white girls, because of group stereotypes, victimization experiences, and how courtroom actors perceive their culpability, agency, and amenability to rehabilitation (Comack and Balfour, 2004; Goodkind, 2005; Nanda, 2012). Some researchers have used an intersectional perspective to examine girls’ delinquency, violence, and experiences in juvenile justice settings, often finding that stereotypes, stigma, oppression, and privilege can occur at the individual, group, and structural levels (e.g., De La Rue and Ortega, 2019; Guevara, Herz, and Spohn, 2006; Leiber, Brubaker and Fox, 2009; Lowery, 2019; Maggard, Higgins, and Chappell, 2013; Pasko and Lopez, 2018a; Quinn et al., 2022).

Several other theoretical frameworks also are used to explain girls’ delinquency. These include the context of risk model, which focuses on biological and social factors and contends that early pubertal development leads to exposure to more risk factors for delinquency for girls (Haynie, 2003; Klopack, Simons, and Simons, 2020); the developmental psychopathology perspective, which integrates an understanding of the social, psychological, biological, and environmental risk and protective factors that influence girls’ developmental trajectories toward or away from delinquency (Cicchetti and Rogosch, 2002; Kerig and Schindler, 2013); and ecological systems theories, which concentrate on the interactions between individuals and their social environments and how these interactions affect individual behavior (Bronfenbrenner, 1994; Darling, 2007; Duerden and Witt, 2010; Javdani and Allen, 2016; Theokas and Lerner, 2006).

Empirical research has found that gender often influences pathways through the juvenile justice system, even when accounting for offense characteristics and other legal and demographic variables (Charish, Davis, and Damphousse, 2004; Leiber, Brubaker, and Fox, 2009; Maggard, Higgins, and Chappell, 2013; Spivak et al., 2014). Explanations for these differences often are explored using the theoretical frameworks described in Theoretical Frameworks.

Findings from quantitative analyses are mixed on whether girls are treated more or less leniently than boys. For instance, Leiber, Brubaker, and Fox (2009) analyzed 21 years (1980–2000) of juvenile case files from a midwestern state to examine the individual and joint effects of gender and race on judicial decisionmaking. After controlling for age, family structure, offense type and severity, prior offenses, and other factors, the authors found that, compared with boys, at intake girls were more likely to be released than referred to court, more likely to be released than sent to a diversion program, and less likely to be securely detained (Leiber, Brubaker, and Fox, 2009). In other words, girls received more lenient court outcomes than similarly situated boys.

Analyses of data from other jurisdictions also have found that girls often receive more lenient court outcomes, compared with similarly situated boys. A study of predispositional detention decisions in Virginia found that girls were treated more leniently than boys, when examining decisions about detention, release, and referral to a detention alternatives program (Maggard, Higgins, and Chappell, 2013). Also, a study of racial, ethnic, and gender effects in juvenile justice system processing in Oklahoma found that, statewide, girls were less likely to be securely detained, more likely to be diverted, less likely to have a petition filed, more likely to have their case dismissed, less likely to be adjudicated delinquent, and less likely to be transferred to the adult court system. Further, if girls were adjudicated, they were less likely than boys to be placed in custody and more likely to be placed on probation (Charish, Davis, and Damphousse, 2004).

Other decision points have been analyzed. For example, some researchers have examined departures from detention and dispositional guidelines. Analysis of more than 57,000 dispositions in the Florida Juvenile Justice System found that boys were 137 percent more likely than girls to receive an above-guideline disposition (Lehmann, Meldrum, and Greenwald, 2020). Also, researchers have found that girls are more likely than boys to be referred for treatment to mental health programs and hospitals, when compared with referrals for correctional placements (Chesney–Lind, 1995; Daurio, 2009; Herz 2001).

However, a study by Carr and colleagues (2008) found contrary results. Using administrative data over 4 years from a large county in Alabama, their findings supported “the limited tolerance for girls’ misbehavior and a greater acceptance of boys’ delinquency” (Carr et al., 2008:37). After analyzing data on 587 youths in a minimum-security residential program, the authors found that, once in the system, girls remained under court supervision much longer than boys. Additionally, despite being convicted for less-serious offenses, girls were more likely to be recommitted to residential treatment. Lastly, when testing for an interaction effect between gender and age, the results showed that young girls who reoffended were at greater risk of reincarceration (this had no relationship with the type of offense committed) [Carr et al., 2008].

Similarly, some studies looking specifically at status offenses have found that girls are sometimes treated more harshly than boys. In their examination of data from Oklahoma, Spivak and colleagues (2014) found that girls outnumbered boys among youths with status offenses and that girls were more likely than boys to have their status offense petitions filed for review. However, this same study also found that boys were more likely to be adjudicated as responsible for a status offense than girls and found no difference by gender in the disposition decision (incarceration versus probation). The authors concluded that their data suggest the possibility of both models of judicial paternalism: 1) the chivalry hypotheses, which claims girls are treated more leniently to protect them and 2) the evil woman hypothesis, which claims that girls are punished for violating gender norms. However, other studies (for example, Freiburger and Burke, 2011) have not found significant differences in judicial processing of status offenses by gender.

Finally, researchers have examined the interaction of gender and race (e.g., Bryson and Peck, 2020; Burke, 2009; Freiburger and Burke, 2011; Guevara, Herz, and Spohn, 2006; Johnson, 2009; Leiber, Brubaker, and Fox, 2009; Nanda, 2012). Often, these studies find that white girls and Black boys lie “on opposing sides of a spectrum of culpability and intervention worthiness” (Cochran and Mears, 2015:205), meaning that white girls are treated the most leniently, and Black boys are treated the most harshly. Several studies also have examined samples of girls only, often finding race effects disadvantaging girls of color, especially Black girls, when compared with white girls (Lowery, 2019; Moore and Padavic, 2010). There are many explanations for racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice decisionmaking, such as evidence that adults view Black girls are less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers (Epstein, Blake, and Gonzalez, 2017; Morris, 2016). For more information, visit the MPG literature review on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Juvenile Justice Processing.

Risk and protective factors are characteristics in the individual, peer, family, school, and community domains that influence the likelihood of outcomes, such as delinquency and juvenile justice system involvement. Risk and protective factors related to girls’ delinquency and involvement in the juvenile justice system generally have been shown to parallel those of boys (Fagan et al., 2007; Leve, Chamberlain, and Kim, 2015; Zahn et al., 2008; Zahn et al., 2010). However, there are clear differences between girls’ and boys’ involvement in the juvenile justice system, and researchers have examined whether these differences can be explained by variations in exposure to and influence of risk and protective factors (Day, Zahn, and Tichavsky, 2015; Haynie, Doogan, and Soller, 2014; Liu and Miller, 2020; Pierce and Jones, 2022; Zahn et al., 2010). 

  1. Some researchers posit that boys are exposed to more of the risk factors that lead to delinquency than girls are, which explains their greater involvement in crime and the justice system (Bottiani et al., 2021; Chan, 2021; Estrada et al., 2021; Finkelhor et al., 2009; Lambert et al., 2005; Zona and Milan, 2011).
  2. Another explanation is that delinquent behavior may have different pathways (or causes) for boys than for girls (Day, Zahn, and Tichavsky, 2015; Fagan and Wright, 2012; Jones et al., 2014; Pierce and Jones, 2022).
  3. A third explanation is that although the same factors influence boys’ and girls’ delinquency, girls may need more exposure to the same risk factors for these factors to influence their delinquency (Leve, Chamberlain, and Kim, 2015; Loeber and Keenen, 1994; Moffitt and Caspi, 2001; Wong. Slotboom, and Bijleveld, 2010).

For example, a study of nearly 8,000 tenth grade students from the Communities That Care Youth Survey examined 22 risk and protective factors in the individual, peer, family, and school domains, finding that, for both girls and boys, all the protective factors were associated with lesser involvement in serious offending, while all the risk factors were associated with increased serious delinquency (Fagan et al., 2007). However, boys experienced higher levels of risk and lower levels of protection in 18 of the 22 factors. The largest differences in exposure to protective factors between boys and girls were 1) belief in a moral order, 2) social skills, and 3) attachment to one’s mother. The largest differences in risk factors were 1) favorable attitudes regarding delinquency, 2) high sensation seeking, and 3) delinquent peers. In other words, girls were more likely than boys to believe in a moral order, have strong social skills, and have a strong relationship with their mothers and were less likely than boys to have favorable attitudes regarding delinquency, high sensation seeking, and exposure to peers who engage in delinquency. Also, for more than half of the assessed factors, the strength of the relationship between the risk or protective factor and serious delinquency was stronger for boys than for girls. There was no case in which the associations between a risk or protective factor and delinquency was stronger for girls than for boys. The largest gender differences were observed in parental attitudes favorable to delinquency and drugs, social skills, and peer rewards for delinquency. In other words, although parental attitudes favorable to delinquency and drugs, social skills, and peer rewards for delinquency influenced both boys and girls, these factors influenced boys more.

Boys also have been found to be at higher risk than girls for several other risk factors, including exposure to gun violence and community violence (Bottiani et al., 2021; Estrada et al., 2021; Finkelhor et al., 2009; Lambert et al., 2005; Zona and Milan, 2011), which may provide some explanation for their greater involvement in violence and delinquency. However, some risk factors are more prevalent in girls. For example, sexual assault is a risk factor for both boys and girls, but the rate of exposure to this risk factor is greater for girls (Zahn et al., 2010).

In addition to risk and protective factors influencing delinquent behavior in the general population, researchers continue to identify differences in the exposure to and the influence of these factors after involvement in the juvenile justice system (Baglivio, 2009; Gómez and Nicolasa Durá, 2023). For example, analysis of more than 8,000 youth in the Florida juvenile justice system found that, while race was a significant predictor for both boys and girls, all others differed by gender. Greater histories of drug use and problems associated with that use, having antisocial peer associations, inadequate/inconsistent parental supervision, and a greater history of school suspensions or expulsions predicted male recidivism.  But the only variables, other than race, that were predictive of female recidivism were history of running away and lack of relationships with prosocial adults other than teachers and employers.

Some researchers have used the term gender-sensitive risk factors to describe risk factors that influence girls differently from how they influence boys (Day, Zahn, and Tichavsky, 2015; Haney-Caron and Baker, 2022; Thomann, 2019). In addition to the examples provided above, several studies have explored whether family factors influence girls’ delinquency more than they influence boys’ delinquency. Analysis of data on more than 6,000 adolescents from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that, although there were no major differences in the levels of parental monitoring that boys and girls received, girls were more receptive to parental supervision, which had an “amplified effect on girls in terms of inhibiting aggressive delinquency” (Liu and Miller, 2020).

Some other factors that have been identified in research as having more of an effect on girls’ delinquent behaviors than boys’ delinquent behaviors are early puberty, sexual abuse or maltreatment, depression and anxiety, traumatic experiences, and romantic partners (Zahn et al., 2008). Also, some researchers have found that the protective nature of sports participation may also differ by gender (see, for example, Spruit et al., 2016).

For more detail, go to the MPG literature reviews on Risk Factors for Delinquency and Protective Factors Against Delinquency.

Some researchers have found that the needs and other characteristics of youth in the juvenile justice system may vary by gender. For example, analysis of data from the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, which analyzed data gathered through interviews with a nationally representative sample of 7,073 youths in residential placement in 2003, found that girls in the placement population were younger than boys, had shorter lengths of stays in residential placement than boys, were less likely to be Black/African American than boys, and differed in their offense patterns from boys (Sedlak and Bruce, 2016). Similar to the information presented in the Scope of the Problem, significantly higher percentages of boys than girls were in placement for murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, and drug or public order offenses; significantly higher percentages of girls than boys were in placement for status offenses and assaults (with or without a weapon). Also, girls were more likely to have current offenses that are less serious than their prior convictions (35 percent of girls, versus 30 percent of boys), whereas more boys exhibit an escalating pattern of offenses (23 percent, versus 20 percent of girls).

That study also found that, compared with boys in the residential population, girls were less likely to participate in sports or clubs, less likely to be expelled from school, more likely to report receiving good grades, and less likely to have a learning disability. Finally, the study found differences in perceived personal strengths and future aspirations. Girls were more likely than boys to see themselves as strong in music, art, writing, dance, working with people, and working with computers and less strong than boys in sports, math, and working with their hands. They also had higher educational aspirations and were more likely than boys to say they expect to be married and to have a steady job (Sedlak and Bruce, 2016).

Three additional factors that are commonly identified in the literature related to how girls may differ from boys in the juvenile justice systems are 1) adverse childhood experiences and trauma, 2) mental health disorders, and 3) child welfare system involvement. These factors sometimes are referred to as responsivity factors, which means that although they may not influence delinquency or recidivism directly (i.e., risk factors) they are important to consider for intervention and reentry planning.

Gender Differences in Adverse Childhood Experiences

Research has demonstrated that exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the impact of these exposures can vary by gender. ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood, including experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect; witnessing violence in the home or community; having a family member attempt or die by suicide; and growing up in a household with substance use problems, mental health problems, and instability (CDC, 2021). Exposure to ACEs has been found to influence several negative life outcomes, including involvement in delinquency and the justice system (e.g., Baglivio et al., 2014; Bellis et al., 2019; Bernard et al., 2021; Felitti, 2002; Ford et al., 2010; Johnson, 2018; Perez, Jennings, and Baglivio, 2018; Pierce and Jones, 2022; Wolf et al., 2020). Several studies have found that exposure to ACEs is higher among youths in the juvenile justice system than for youths in other populations (Baglivio et al., 2014; Dierkhising et al., 2013; Malvaso et al., 2022; Vitopoulos et al., 2019; Wood et al., 2002) and that cumulative adversity increases the risk of reoffending and elevated substance use and psychiatric needs (e.g., Folk et al., 2021; Weber and Lynch, 2021; Wolff, Baglivio, and Piquero, 2017). Also, exposure to interpersonal violence, victimization, and other types of abuse can increase the likelihood of externalizing symptoms, such as aggressiveness, impulsivity, and disruptive behavior problems (Ford et al., 2011; Moylan et al., 2010), which can make engagement in programming and following rules more difficult.

Although some researchers have found that girls and boys experience similar levels of childhood adversity, others find differences by gender. Findings are more consistent related to the different types of adverse experience vary by gender. Generally, researchers find that girls are at higher risk for dating violence and sexual violence victimization (Basile et al., 2020; Dierkhising et al., 2013; Finkelhor et al., 2009; Finkelhor et al., 2015; Tharp et al., 2017), while boys are at higher risk of gun violence and community violence victimization and exposure (Bottiani et al., 2021; Brosky and Lally, 2004; Estrada et al., 2021; Finkelhor et al., 2009; Lambert et al., 2005; Zona and Milan, 2011). Several studies have found that adolescent girls are more likely than adolescent boys to develop posttraumatic stress disorder following a significant trauma (Nooner et al., 2012).

Figure 2. Prevalence of ACE Indicators in Florida Juvenile Justice System, by Gender

Among youths in the juvenile justice system, researchers also have identified several differences by gender in ACEs. Similar to studies of youths in the general population, several studies have found that among justice-involved youths, girls report higher levels of exposure to sexual victimization and interpersonal victimization while boys report higher rates of witnessing violence (Cauffman et al., 1998; Dierkhising et al., 2013; Folk et al., 2021; Ford et al., 2007; Wood et al., 2002). Others have found that girls have higher exposure to all types of ACEs (Baglivio et al., 2014). A study of 64,000 youths in the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) system found that more than three fourths of the sample had been exposed to family violence, parental separation, or divorce and more than two thirds had a household member who had been incarcerated (Baglivio et al., 2014). Florida DJJ data also revealed that girls had a higher prevalence than boys on every ACE indicator (see Figure 2). Girls in the juvenile justice system also tend to have a higher number of ACEs, compared with boys (Baglivio et al., 2014; Folk et al., 2021). However, other studies have found higher levels of ACEs for justice-involved boys, compared with girls (e.g., Duron et al., 2022).

Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Human Trafficking

Commercial sexual exploitation of children refers to a “range of crimes and activities involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a child for the financial benefit of any person or in exchange for anything of value (including monetary and nonmonetary benefits) given or received by any person” (OJJDP, n.d.). Children can be victimized by the human trafficking and sex trade in many ways, including prostitution, pornography, and child sex tourism (Development Services Group, Inc. 2014; Development Services Group, Inc. 2016; Miller–Perrin and Wurtele, 2017; Swaner et al., 2016). In a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the characteristics of suspected human trafficking incidents, almost 94 percent of sex trafficked victims were female, and more than half were age 17 or younger (Banks and Kyckelhahn, 2011). Also, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’s) Child Maltreatment 2020 indicated that 88.6 percent of the 877 reported victims of sex trafficking were female (HHS, 2022).

Within the juvenile justice system, girls are more likely than boys to have a history of human trafficking (Reid et al., 2017). A study using the Florida DJJ data found that 87.7 percent of the youth with a history of trafficking were girls (while 12.3 percent were boys). This study also examined the difference between youths with a history of human trafficking abuse reports and those without such reports, examining six ACEs: 1) emotional abuse, 2) physical abuse, 3) sexual abuse, 4) emotional neglect, 5) physical neglect, and 6) family violence. They found that each of the ACEs were more prevalent among youths who had trafficking reports. For example, the odds of human trafficking were 2.5 times as great for girls who experienced sexual abuse, compared with girls who did not experience sexual abuse (Reid et al., 2017). Another study of commercially sexually exploited girls in a specialty court in Los Angeles found that the girls in the sample demonstrated high rates of mental health problems and substance use, with 43 percent of the sample reporting at least one hospitalization due to mental health problems (Cook et al., 2018).

For more information, see the MPG literature reviews on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Sex Trafficking and Child Labor Trafficking

Gender Differences in Mental Health and Substance Use Needs

Mental health disorders can impede the ability to successfully engage in and benefit from programming aimed at reducing delinquency. Both girls and boys in the juvenile justice system have higher levels of mental health needs than youths outside of the system (Beaudry et al., 2021; Borschmann et al., 2020), and these needs vary by gender. Many studies find that girls in the juvenile justice system have higher psychological and mental health needs than boys (e.g., Duron et al., 2022). Specifically, studies often find that girls in the juvenile justice system are more likely to experience major depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and emotion dysregulation, compared with boys in the juvenile justice system (Beaudry et al., 2021; Loyd et al., 2019; Kerig, and Becker, 2012; Shufelt and Cocozza, 2006).

A study that collected data from more than 1,400 youths in 29 different programs and facilities in three U.S. states found that more than 80 percent of the girls in the sample met criteria for at least one disorder, compared with 67 percent of boys (Shufelt and Cocozza, 2006). The authors found that much of the difference between girls’ and boys’ mental health needs was attributable to girls’ higher rates of internalizing disorders, such as anxiety disorder (56 percent of girls, compared with 26 percent of boys) and mood disorders (29 percent of girls, compared with 14 percent of boys). This study also found that girls and boys experience comparable rates of disruptive disorders, such as conduct disorders, and substance use disorders. This is notable since studies of non–justice-involved populations tend to find that girls are less likely than boys to have substance use disorders and disruptive disorders (also called externalizing disorders) [Copeland et al., 2011; Fairchild et al., 2019; Kilpatrick et al., 2003; McHugh et al. 2018].

Studies examining substance use specifically have also found differences by gender. A study of more than 3,000 youths with a positive drug screen in a midwestern urban juvenile justice system found that use of benzodiazepines, opioids, methamphetamines, and alcohol all were more common among girls than among boys, while cannabis was more common among boys. Boys also had a greater number of positive oral drug screen frequency than girls, but there were no differences in rates of polysubstance use by gender (Dir et al., 2020).

For more information on mental health needs of youth in the juvenile justice system, see the MPG literature review on Intersection between Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System.

Gender Differences in Child Welfare System Involvement

Youths who have experienced abuse or neglect and who engage in delinquent behaviors are called crossover youths (Kolivoski, Barnett, and Abbott, 2015; Herz et al., 2019), and youths who are involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are called dual-system or dual status youths (Grisso and Vincent, 2014; Herz et al., 2019; Onifade et al., 2014). Crossover and dual-system youths share many of the same risk factors and other characteristics as youths involved in just one of these systems; however, crossover and dual-system youths tend to face a greater number of these risk factors, more complex risk factors, and fewer protective factors (Dierkhising et al., 2019; Herz, Ryan, and Bilchik, 2010; Kim et al., 2020; Lee and Villagrana, 2015).

In 2020, child abuse and neglect victimization rates were higher for girls than for boys (8.9 per 1,000 for girls, compared with 7.9 per 1,000 boys) [HHS, 2022]. Although several studies have found that girls in the child welfare system are less likely than boys to become a part of the juvenile justice system (Cho et al., 2019; Cutuli et al., 2016; Kolivoski et al., 2014; Vidal et al., 2017), among juvenile justice system youths, crossover and dual-system youths are more likely to be girls than juvenile justice youths without child abuse/neglect or child welfare system experience (Baidawi, Papalia, and Featherston, 2023; Dierkhising et al., 2013; Dierkhising et al., 2019; Halemba and Siegel, 2011). For example, in Los Angeles County, CA, girls were involved in 28 percent of the delinquency cases but 40 percent of the dually involved cases; in Cook County, IL, girls were involved in 17 percent of the first-time juvenile delinquency court petitions but 22 percent of the dual systems youth; in Cuyahoga County, OH, girls constituted 28 percent of the first-time juvenile delinquency court petitions but 35 percent of the dual system youth; and in New York, NY, girls accounted for 15 percent of the first-time juvenile delinquency court petitions but 25 percent of the dual system youths (Dierkhising et al., 2019; Herz et al., 2019). Also, analysis of a nationally representative sample of more than 7,000 youths in residential placement in 2003 found that a higher percentage of girls than boys were raised by a foster parent, a group home, or an agency (14 percent of girls, compared with 8 percent of boys) [Sedlak and Bruce, 2016].

Crossover and dual-system girls often have greater needs, compared with girls in the juvenile justice system without abuse or child welfare experiences. These include higher need for case coordination across agencies; addressing the physical, logical, emotional, and metal health consequences related to experiencing child abuse and neglect; and additional emphasis on planning for youth housing, permanency, and transition after leaving a secure facility (Flores et al., 2018; Herz, Ryan, and Bilchik, 2010). Further, some researchers have identified crossover status as a predictor for recidivism. A study of youths with serious offenses in the Florida DJJ system found that white and Hispanic girls with a closed dependency case were more likely than girls without dependency cases to recidivate. However, dependency status did not influence recidivism for Black girls (Baglivio et al., 2016).

In addition, crossover and dual-system girls with multiple marginalized identities—including girls of color and girls who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, or other identities (LGBTQ+)—are particularly vulnerable to negative outcomes (Irvine and Canfield, 2016; Kolivoski, 2022).

For more information about crossover youth, please see the Intersection of Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare System literature review.

A small but growing body of literature attempts to identify prevalence rates and unique pathways and needs of youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, or other identities (LGBTQ+) [see Barnett et al., 2022; Irvine–Baker, Jones, and Canfield, 2019; Jonnson et al., 2019; Poteat, Scheer, and Chong, 2016; Wilson et al., 2017]. Most of this literature finds that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and gender-nonconforming girls are disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system (see Barnett et al., 2022; Jonnson et al., 2019; Poteat, Scheer, and Chong, 2016; Wilson et al., 2017). The body of literature studying transgender youths in the juvenile justice system is smaller than the body of literature examining sexual orientation and gender nonconformity (Watson et al., 2023).

For example, a study of a nationally representative sample of more than 8,000 youths in juvenile correctional facilities in 2012 found that 39.2 percent of the girls identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (Wilson et al., 2017). Also, a study comparing more than 800 lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning youths to more than 800 heterosexual youths in high schools in one county in Wisconsin found that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning youths were more likely than heterosexual youths to report juvenile justice system involvement (Poteat, Scheer, and Chong, 2016). However, this study did not examine girls and boys separately.

Studies also have found that girls in the juvenile justice system are more likely to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning/queer, or gender nonconforming than boys in the juvenile justice system are. In the study mentioned above (Wilson et al., 2017), only 3.2 percent of the boys (compared with 39.2 percent of the girls) identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Smaller studies have found similar results. A study of 404 incarcerated youths in 12 residential programs in Ohio found that 27.0 percent of the girls (compared with 5.3 percent of the boys) identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual (Belknap, Holsinger, and Little, 2012). Another study of seven detention centers found that about 40 percent of girls were gender nonconforming and/or lesbian, bisexual, or questioning, which the researchers categorized in three ways: a) 23 percent gender conforming and lesbian, bisexual, or questioning; b) 9 percent gender nonconforming and lesbian, bisexual, or questioning; and c) 8 percent gender nonconforming and heterosexual (Irvine and Canfield, 2016). This same study found that only about 14 percent of boys were gay, bisexual, questioning, and/or gender nonconforming.

For more information, visit the MPG literature review on LGBTQ Youths in the Juvenile Justice System.

Many of the programs that have demonstrated effectiveness for youth in the juvenile justice system have been found to work specifically for girls (Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo, 2007; Quinn and Van Dyke, 2004; Zahn et al., 2009). However, sometimes girls do not experience the same level of success in these programs as boys do (Celinska et al., 2013; Granski et al., 2020). Thus, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners have examined the utility of responses designed and developed specifically for girls. These often are referred to as gender-responsive or gender-specific approaches. Although these terms can be interpreted to be relevant for both boys and girls, and although the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act defines gender-specific services as “services designed to address needs unique to the gender of the individual to whom such services are provided,” they often are used as a reference solely to reflect programming for girls (Anderson et al., 2019; Foley, 2008; Garcia and Lane, 2010; Goodkind, 2005).

Gender responsivity in the juvenile justice system has been described as a comprehensive systems response that emphasizes the importance of girls’ experiences and pathways into crime and which addresses girls’ unique developmental, social, and psychological needs (Anderson et al., 2019; Garcia and Lane, 2010). What makes gender-specific programs different from gender-nonspecific programs is the concentration on some of the differences between girls and boys and the provision of services that address the distinct needs of girls in the justice system (Zahn et al., 2009).

Several approaches have been promoted as gender responsive in the research literature:

  • Use assessment instruments that are effective for girls. The standardized instruments used to make decisions about placement and services in the juvenile justice system are not always effective for girls, but many effective ones have been identified (Matthews and Hubbard, 2008; Zahn et al., 2008).
  • Develop interventions based on relationships. Promotion of healthy connections is especially important for girls, given the importance of relationships in their lives (Garcia and Lane, 2012; Walker, Muno, and Sullivan–Colglazier, 2015). Positive change for girls often is dependent on affiliation with others through trusting relationships (Covington, 2000; Gilligan, 1982). Interventions for girls should include promoting healthy connections with others and should be built into the family, peer, school, and community domains (Matthews and Hubbard, 2008:497).
  • Use gender-responsive cognitive–behavioral approaches. Cognitive–behavioral therapy (CBT) is a problem-focused, therapeutic approach designed to help individuals identify and change dysfunctional beliefs, thoughts, and patterns that contribute to maladaptive behavior (Feucht and Holt, 2016). It is a common intervention for youth in the juvenile justice system. Matthews and Hubbard (2008) recommend modifying CBT group processes for girls to accommodate girls’ need for greater supports, safety, and intimacy and allowing extra time to engage in more-informal (and less-structured) conversations. They also recommend modifying some of the content of CBT programs related to the types of cognitive distortions and protective factors most likely to be associated with girls. For example, girls are more likely to engage in self-debasing distortions such as self-blame and other negative thoughts about self, while boys are more likely to engage in self-serving distortions such as rationalizations and externalization of blame. For more information, see the MPG literature review on Cognitive–Behavioral Treatment and the CrimeSolutions Practice Profile on CBT for Anger-Related Problems in Children.
  • Recognize within-girl differences. Individual girls may follow different developmental sequences related to delinquency (Day, Zahn, and Tichavsky, 2015; Zahn et al., 2008). Identifying these differences can help distinguish subgroups for whom particular programs are most relevant and useful (Matthews and Hubbard, 2008; Zahn et al., 2009).
  • Create single-sex groups, which appear to benefit both boys and girls who are involved in the justice system (Covington and Bloom, 2014; Grella, 2008; Latessa, Listwan, and Koetzle, 2015).

Two other gender-responsive approaches are serving girls holistically (and not focusing excluding on their criminogenic needs) and being culturally responsive (Walker, Muno, and Sullivan–Colglazier, 2015). Also, meeting the specific needs of girls in the juvenile justice system may require specialized staffing and training, particularly in terms of relationship and communication skills, the role of abuse, developmental stages of female adolescence, gender identities and sexual orientations, and appropriateness of available programs (Bloom et al., 2002; Holsinger and Hodge, 2016).

Several gender-specific interventions have been developed, implemented, and evaluated (e.g., Anderson et al., 2019; Froeschle, Smith, and Ricard, 2007; Goldstein et al., 2018; Pepler et al., 2010; Williams et al., 1999). These include community- and school-based programs aiming to prevent violence, delinquency, and substance use and programs designed for girls already in the juvenile justice system. There also are programs that aim to prevent the crossover of girls from child welfare to juvenile justice. Finally, at the end of this section, we describe non–gender-specific programs that have been found to be effective for girls.

Prevention Programs Designed for Girls

Prevention programs include a broad array of activities, initiatives, and interventions designed to enhance child development and prevent negative developmental outcomes (Deković et al., 2011). Delinquency prevention programs aim to prevent or reduce engagement in delinquent behaviors, to delay these behaviors, or to prevent entry into the juvenile justice system among youths already engaging in minor delinquent behaviors. Some of these programs are designed specifically for girls.

Movimiento Ascendencia (Upward Movement) was established in Pueblo, CO, to provide Mexican American girls with positive alternatives to substance use and gang involvement. It is a culturally focused, gender-specific program that was designed around the components of 1) mediation/conflict resolution, 2) self-esteem/social support, and 3) cultural awareness. A 1999 evaluation by Williams and colleagues found a statistically significant reduction in self-reports of damaging property, stealing more than $50, and buying, selling, or holding stolen goods. However, the program made no impact on self-esteem, grades in school, concealing weapons, and stealing less than $50.

SAM (Solution, Action, Mentorship) Program for Adolescent Girls is a school-based, substance use–prevention program that uses a solution-focused brief therapy and community and peer mentorship. The objective of SAM is to change participants’ drug-using behaviors through group therapy. A study compared 40 girls who participated in SAM with 40 girls who did not. The authors found that program participation had a statistically significant effect on lowering drug use, improving social competence, increasing knowledge surrounding drug use, and increasing negative attitudes toward drug use. The program had no statistically significant effect on grade point average or self-esteem (Froeschle, Smith, and Ricard, 2007).

Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise & Nutrition Alternative (ATHENA) is a team-centered, peer-led, health promotion program for female high school athletes. The curriculum targets modifiable risk and protective factors associated with disordered eating and body-shaping drug use. The intervention addresses issues such as depression, mood, self-esteem, norms of behavior, effects of media depictions of women, perceptions of healthy body weight, and societal pressures to be thin. Girls who participated in the program had a statistically significant higher likelihood of reporting improved nutritional behaviors and decrease in lifetime alcohol and marijuana use, compared with girls who did not participate. However, findings regarding the use of diet pills were mixed, and there was no statistically significant impact on the use of athletic-enhancing substances (Elliot et al., 2004; Elliot et al., 2008).

SNAP (Stop Now And Plan) Girls is a specialized, family-focused intervention for girls (ages 6 to 11) who have exhibited conduct, oppositional, or externalizing problems. Participants and their parents meet in separate groups once a week for 13 weeks. Individually and in their group meetings, girls learn how to regulate their emotions, practice self-control, and improve problem-solving skills, with an emphasis on challenging cognitive distortion to help them make better choices in the moment. The goal is to reduce the girls’ disruptive behavior, risk of police contact, and discipline issues while also improving parent-management skills. A study of families in Canada that participated in SNAP found that participation in the program resulted in statistically significantly lower levels of behavior problems among the girls (including externalizing problems, rule breaking, aggression, conduct disorder, and social problems), compared with the girls in the comparison group (Pepler et al., 2010).

Programs Designed for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

There are several interventions that have been evaluated for girls once they are involved with the juvenile justice system. These include studies of programs that aim to reduce recidivism and other factors related to offending, such as aggression. Programs have also been evaluated that concentrate on other outcomes for girls in the juvenile justice system, such as mental health and education.

Juvenile Justice Anger Management (JJAM) Treatment for Girls is a cognitive–behavioral, anger-management treatment for adolescent girls in residential juvenile justice facilities. JJAM is a manualized group intervention designed to reduce participants’ anger, physical aggression, and relational aggression. Treatment sessions are related to psychoeducation, skill building, problem solving, and training on application of these skills to real-world events. A randomized controlled trial study of 57 girls ages 12 to 20 in juvenile justice facilities in two states found that girls who participated in JJAM showed statistically significant reductions in anger, physical aggression, and relational aggression scores, compared with the control group (Goldstein et al., 2018).

The Gender-Responsive Intervention for Female Juvenile Offenders was a program in a midwestern state for adjudicated girls in the juvenile justice system. The goal was to provide gender-responsive treatment services to high-risk girls in a group-home setting with the aim of reducing the likelihood of reoffending. The program emphasized comprehensiveness, safety, empowerment, and family and relationship support—all in the context of community-based services. Personalized treatment plans were created at the group homes, using assessment tools. In addition, Cognitive–Behavioral Therapy, the Thinking for a Change behavior curriculum, and Girls Moving On gender-responsive programming were implemented. Anderson and colleagues (2019) found that girls who received the gender-responsive intervention were less likely to have a new offense petitioned to court within the 24-month follow-up period, compared with a comparison group of girls who received probation as usual (a statistically significant difference).

Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy (TARGET) is a trauma-focused psychotherapy program for adolescents and adults with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is a manualized program that teaches skills for processing and managing trauma-related reactions to stressful situations, such as PTSD symptoms, traumatic grief, survivor guilt, and shame. The goal of treatment is to help individuals regulate intense emotions and gain control of posttraumatic stress reactions. Ford and colleagues (2012) conducted a randomized controlled trial involving girls (ages 13 to 17) exhibiting delinquent behavior and full or partial PTSD. They examined several outcomes, finding that the girls who participated in TARGET had a statistically significantly greater reduction in PTSD Criterion B symptoms (intrusive re-experiencing), compared with girls who did not participate. However, the intervention had no statistically significant effect on PTSD diagnosis, anxiety, depression, emotion regulation, anger, posttraumatic cognitions, PTSD Criterion C symptoms (avoidance and emotional numbing), or PTSD Criterion D symptoms (hyperarousal). Also, girls who participated in TARGET showed a statistically significantly lower level of hope, compared with girls who did not participate (an opposite-than-expected finding).

Non–Gender-Specific Programs for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

Non–gender-specific programs can also improve outcomes for girls in the juvenile justice system. The number of evaluations that examine the effect of these programs on girls is limited, but some have demonstrated effectiveness for girls in reducing recidivism, behavior problems, and incarceration (Zahn et al., 2009).

Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is a family and community-based treatment program for adolescents with serious antisocial, delinquent, and other problem behaviors who have offended. Youths who have participated in this program have experienced statistically significant reductions in rearrest and the number of days incarcerated (Borduin et al., 1995; Henggeler et al., 1992; Timmons–Mitchell et al., 2006). In their review of studies evaluating MST, Zahn and colleagues (2009) concluded: “MST appears to work equally well for both female and male juvenile offenders across multiple sites and samples” and that its effects on recidivism, behaviors problems, psychiatric symptomatology, and days incarcerated do not differ by gender (2009:286). There are several versions of MST, including MST–Family Integrated Transitions, MST for Youth with Problem Sexual Behaviors, and MST for Child Abuse and Neglect.

Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC) is a behavioral treatment alternative to residential placement for adolescents with antisocial behavior, emotional disturbance, and delinquency. There are several versions of MTFC. For example, MTFC–A is for adolescents, ages 12 to 16, and includes activities such as behavioral parent training and support for the foster parents, family therapy for the biological parents, skills training for youth, supportive therapy for youth, school-based behavioral interventions and academic support, and psychiatric consultation and medication management, when needed. Girls who have participated in MTFC–A have shown a statistically significant reduction in delinquency, compared with control group girls (Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo, 2007).

An evaluation of Family Solutions, a multifamily group-based intervention targeting youths involved in juvenile court for their first offense, resulted in reductions in recidivism for both boys and girls in two Georgia counties (Quinn and Van Dyke, 2004). The program includes 10 weekly 2-hour sessions with six to eight families focused on building a support system within the group, family cooperation, family–school partnerships, parental monitoring and communication, anger-management skills, decisionmaking, and community service.

Programs for Girls in the Child Welfare System

Girls who are involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems often face a greater number of risk factors, more complex risk factors, and fewer protective factors, compared with girls involved in just one of these systems (Dierkhising et al., 2019; Herz, Ryan, and Bilchik, 2010; Kim et al., 2020; Lee and Villagrana, 2015). Several interventions have attempted to prevent movement into the juvenile justice system from the child welfare system.

KEEP SAFE is a multicomponent intervention to prevent delinquency and substance misuse for girls in foster care transitioning from elementary school to middle school. The intervention contains two components. The first component concentrates on the girls’ caregivers and consists of six sessions of group-based caregiver training and development of parenting skills. The second component consists of group-based skills training sessions for the girls, designed to increase their social skills for positive peer relationships, increase their self-confidence, and decrease their susceptibility to negative peer influence. A randomized controlled trial study of 100 girls in the Pacific Northwest found that girls who participated in KEEP SAFE reported statistically significantly reduced tobacco use, marijuana use, and delinquent behavior, compared with control group girls. However, there was no statistically significant impact on alcohol use or association with delinquent peers (Kim and Leve, 2011).

Social Learning/Feminist Intervention is a 12-session program for adolescent girls with a history of exposure to violence/abuse and involvement in the child welfare system. The goal of the program is to reduce revictimization in teen dating situations by using a health-promotion approach to help girls develop healthy relationships. A study of the effects of this program with girls ages 12 to 19 found that it made a statistically significant impact on reducing physical victimization but no impact on sexual revictimization (DePrince et al., 2013).

Researchers have identified several challenges to implementing effective programming for girls in the juvenile justice system. Matthews and Hubbard (2008) identified four impediments: 1) gender-stereotyped thinking, 2) placing more formal controls on girls, instead of supporting the development of effective programming designed for their needs, 3) small numbers of girls in the system, which limits the quantity and range of programming for girls, and 4) the “abstract nature of the principles promulgated by ‘gender-responsive’ and ‘what works’ scholars” (2008:495).

With regard to the first impediment, gender-stereotyped thinking includes the belief that making something gender responsive merely requires aesthetic changes (e.g., feminine paint color and furniture) or implementing activities and programming that girls may like more than boys (e.g., jewelry-making classes, vocational training in cosmetology or nursing, knitting classes, dance groups). It also includes perceptions that girls are sexually promiscuous, manipulative, harder to work with than boys, have too many issues, are “catty,” and are too needy (Gaarder et al., 2004; Garcia and Lane, 2010; Lopez and Nuño, 2016). Girls of color are subjected to even more stereotyping (Epstein, Blake, and González, 2017; Lopez and Nuño, 2016; Nanda, 2012; Pasko and Lopez, 2018b). Even some of the gender-specific approaches that scholars advocate can be misconstrued into the very type of gender stereotyping that they attempt to avoid (Matthews and Hubbard, 2008).

The second obstacle is that many jurisdictions respond to girls’ delinquency by placing more formal controls on girls, instead of implementing evidence-based approaches to reduce delinquent behavior. This is a challenge facing both boys and girls. What makes this unique to girls is the perception that girls have become more violent and deviant than in the past (e.g., Garbarino, 2007; Steffensmeier et al., 2005).

The third challenge identified by Matthews and Hubbard (2008) was the small numbers of girls in the justice system, because this limits the quantity and range of programming for girls. This challenge—albeit a “positive” one—has become only greater since the year their article was published. In 2008 the girls’ arrest rate was 3,406 per 100,000, and in 2020 the girls’ arrest rate was 751, a decrease of 78 percent. Also, the number of girls in residential placement decreased from 11,797 in 2007 to 5,415 in 2019 (Sickmund et al., 2022). For more information, see Scope of the Problem and Data Trends.

Finally, the abstract nature of what it means to be gender responsive or gender specific, and the contradictions between the gender-responsive literature and the “what works” literature, is a challenge that continues to impede proper development of programs to serve girls. The gender-specific literature emphasizes the unique experiences of being a girl and the different pathways to delinquency among boys and girls. This perspective asserts that girls need qualitatively different types of programs and services to adequately address their delinquent behavior (Belknap and Holsinger, 1998; Bloom, 2000; Bloom, Owen, and Covington, 2003; Chesney–Lind, 1995). (For more information, see Gender-Responsive Approaches). The “what works” literature synthesizes quantitative research and has disseminated principles of effective intervention associated with a reduction in delinquency and recidivism (see for example, Andrews et al., 1990; Cullen and Gendreau, 2000; Evans-Chase and Zhou, 2014; Latessa, Cullen, and Gendreau, 2002; Lipsey and Wilson, 1998). These researchers assert that the strongest predictors of delinquency (which are called criminogenic needs) are similar between boys and girls and that evidence-based principles for addressing delinquency are applicable to boys and girls alike. However, “neither does a sufficient job of providing concrete ways to transfer these principles and knowledge into programs for girls” (Matthews and Hubbard, 2008:495). Although this challenge was identified more than 15 years ago, it continues to be identified in more-recent literature (e.g., Anderson, Hoskins, and Rubino, 2019).

Although girls are underrepresented in the juvenile justice system, their representation has increased over the past few decades (Ehrmann, Hyland, and Puzzanchera, 2019; Statistical Briefing Book, 2022). There is a substantial body of literature that examines whether girls have unique risk factors, protective factors, and needs, which could require gender-specific interventions to prevent delinquency and reduce recidivism (Day, Zahn, and Tichavsky, 2015; Fagan and Wright, 2012; Matthews and Hubbard, 2008; Zahn et al., 2010). For example, among juvenile justice system populations, researchers have found meaningful differences by gender in three main areas: 1) exposure to adverse childhood experiences and trauma, 2) mental health disorders, and 3) child welfare system involvement (Baglivio et al., 2014; Dierkhising et al., 2013; Dierkhising et al., 2019; Duron et al., 2022; Halemba and Siegel, 2011; Shufelt and Cocozza, 2006). These factors are important to consider for intervention and reentry planning (Latessa, Listwan, and Koetzle, 2015).

Several gender-specific approaches have been designed, implemented, and evaluated. These include programs to prevent drug use, violence, and delinquency (Elliot et al., 2008; Froeschle, Smith, and Ricard, 2007; Pepler et al., 2010; Williams et al., 1999) and programs for girls already involved in the juvenile justice system (Anderson et al., 2019; Ford et al., 2012; Goldstein et al., 2018). Gender-specific interventions also have been developed to prevent girls in the child welfare system from crossing over into the juvenile justice system (DePrince et al., 2013; Kim and Leve, 2011).

Researchers also have examined non–gender-specific programs and the effects on girls specifically (Zahn et al., 2009). Though the effects sometimes vary by gender, researchers have found that many of the same programs that work for boys also work for girls (Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo, 2007; Quinn and Van Dyke, 2004; Zahn et al., 2009).

Anderson, V.R., Walerych, B.M., Campbell, N.A., Barnes, A.R., Davidson, W.S., Campbell, C.A., Onifade, E., and Petersen, J.L. 2019. Gender-responsive intervention for female juvenile offenders: A quasi-experimental outcome evaluation. Feminist Criminology 14(1):24–44.

Andrews, D.A., Zinger, I., Bonta, J.D., Gendreau, P., and Cullen, F.T. 1990. Does correctional treatment work? A psychologically informed meta-analysis. Criminology 28:369−404.

Baglivio, M.T. 2009. The assessment of risk to recidivate among a juvenile offending population. Journal of Criminal Justice 37(6):596–607.

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Prepared by Development Services Group, Inc., under Contract Number: 47QRAA20D002V.


Last Update: August 2023