Executive Summary

For decades, girls who have broken the law have entered a juvenile justice system that was designed to help someone else. Boys commit the overwhelming number of juvenile crimes, and their offenses tend to be more violent and dangerous than the status offenses most girls commit. It's no wonder, then, that female delinquents have been overlooked and neglected by a system engineered to help troubled boys become law-abiding men.

Two important trends are changing this picture.

First, more girls are getting into trouble. While girls still constitute only about one-fourth of all juvenile arrests, their numbers are increasing at an alarming pace. More girls are entering the juvenile justice system, and many at younger ages. While status offenses such as running away still make up most of the cases, some girls are committing more violent crimes such as assault. A small number are involved in gangs previously thought to be male turf. This tells us that we have a bigger problem with girls than we realized.

Second, researchers in fields such as psychology, sociology, and education are looking specifically at how girls develop into women. A new body of scholarly work describes the developmental pathways females travel during adolescence. Researchers now have a better understanding of the risk factors girls face because of their gender which can derail or delay their healthy development. For example, girls are three times as likely as boys to have experienced sexual abuse, which is often an underlying factor in high-risk behaviors that lead to delinquency. Researchers also have identified the protective factors most likely to shield girls from delinquency. This new understanding of female adolescent development points to solutions for helping the increasing number of girls who are engaging in delinquent or risky behaviors.

The most promising solution isn't to continue squeezing girls into a justice system designed for boys, or to separate juvenile delinquents according to gender. Rather, gender-specific programming for girls is a comprehensive approach to female delinquency rooted in the experience of girls. It aims to help girls already in trouble, while preventing future delinquency among girls who are at risk. It bridges theory-into-practice by combining female adolescent theory with juvenile justice practices.

This monograph outlines the promising practices in programming for girls who are already involved in the juvenile justice system or those who are at risk of delinquency. Its purposes are to:

  • Provide a comprehensive review of the most relevant theoretical and research studies focusing on the gender-specific needs of at-risk adolescent girls

  • Delineate the risk and protective factors affecting at-risk adolescent girls who may become juvenile delinquents

  • Present effective gender-specific programming strategies for girls, both within the juvenile justice system and in community settings
Our goal is to provide practical information to practitioners and policymakers on how to design and implement gender-specific programs for girls. Promising and innovative strategies are being implemented nationwide in diverse communities serving a variety of adolescent girl populations. We offer an overview of these programs and hope these practical examples will encourage others to put gender-specific strategies into practice.

Chapter 1 outlines the urgent need for programming for girls. It offers a statistical look at female delinquency, provides a summary of female adolescent theory, and addresses the risk factors girls face because of gender. Chapter 2 describes the planning involved in creating gender-specific programs. It cites the policies that encourage gender-specific programming for girls and presents reports from states that have taken groundbreaking steps on behalf of girls. It defines gender-specific programming and provides an overview of the elements programs need to offer girls. Chapter 3 provides an in-depth look at the key elements and features of programs that are designed to serve the specific needs of girls. An appendix describes 16 promising programs currently offering gender-specific services to girls in both residential and community-based settings.

Throughout this document, we have also included comments from girls who have participated in gender-specific programs. They often describe the experience as life-changing. Many have found new hope as a result of these programs. We encourage others to find hope in these gender-specific strategies, which are intended to embrace the adolescent girl and help her find her way to a positive future.

Sheila R. Peters, Ph.D.
Senior Project Manager
Greene, Peters and Associates

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Guiding Principles for Promising
Female Programming
October 1998