Reforming Juvenile Justice for Girls in Our Community

A teenage girl smoking

Tacoma defense attorney Hayley Fulton examines the differences between boys and girls navigating the juvenile justice system.

When you see a young girl in juvenile hall, sitting before a judge ready to take a plea, do you get a different feeling than when you see a young boy doing the same thing?

I do. But I’ve been struggling to put a finger on the reason. Perhaps it’s the tendency to believe that girls are less impulsive, less aggressive and less likely to engage in criminal behavior. The belief is that without a social or familial catalyst, girls are less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Whether or not that is true, it is true that girls and boys grow up differently in our society. They are faced with social norms, pressures and expectations; there is no denying we are taught that we are different. So, knowing that, is it a good idea to have our juvenile justice system tailored to suit gender differences?

A recent article, Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls, explores the different gender needs in the juvenile justice system and argues the current system falls short of providing young girls the tools they need for success. The intended purpose of the juvenile justice system is to not only punish youth, but to provide them with the tools needed for success. I agree with the article’s authors: we are falling short of providing young girls the tools they need for success, such as empowerment, independence, strength and support.

There’s no doubt that some of our counties are trying. We have probation officers who meet with youth individually. The officers are devoted to working diligently with youth to make sure they comply with the court orders. Support groups and counseling services are provided, but often they are not mandatory.

For example, I was sitting in a juvenile court room last week. A young teenage girl was entering a plea to a felony and being sentenced. Her parents were not present. Although the girl took responsibility for her actions, the attorney also stated that her behavior was tied to a group of friends that she had recently been hanging out with. The judge granted a deferred sentence and placed her on probation for seven months. As a part of the sentence, the young girl was required to complete 30 hours of community service. The sentence also included hour-for-hour credit for any “girls’ group” or other counseling that she attended. When the judge explained this to the young girl, she perked up and repeated the judge’s words. When the judge confirmed, she said something to the effect of, “Really? That’s so cool.” It is really cool — but it’s not mandatory that she go. She can complete her 30 hours of community service without being provided any tools for success.

The article encourages readers to rethink and rework the juvenile justice system for different genders. It discusses the probationary period and the lack of focus on giving girls the ability to deal with the social, psychological and physical challenges they face. For seven months, the young girl I saw in court will be on probation. She will likely have a stringent curfew and reporting requirements. The 30 hours of community service breaks down to about four hours every month. That’s four hours that she will be required to do community service — or, if she chooses, attending counseling or a girls’ group. After the seven months, she will no longer be receiving support or have any requirements. She will likely have learned few tools to deal with the challenges she will continue to face. She will likely not have the tools she needs to counter act the social pressures from her friends.

I’m not exactly sure what the answer is, but it is an issue that we should start talking about and keep in mind, especially as both prosecutors and defense attorneys working in the juvenile justice system.