New research from the University of Texas at Austin found girls in the juvenile justice system tend to serve longer sentences than boys.
Erin Espinosa's interest in the subject began during the dozen years she worked in the system. As a research associate with the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health at UT Austin’s School of Social Work, she spent two years studying more than five thousand juveniles in three large urban counties.
Highlights from Espinosa's interview:
Why girls serve longer sentences than boys: “I don’t know why. We can theorize that it may be because of their behaviors that manifest as part of their trauma history. When girls are in the community, they can get into trouble for status offenses like skipping school or running away or smoking cigarettes on campus, things that adults don’t get in trouble for. Those could be coping mechanisms for some trauma experience that they’re incurring in the home or community. Then you lock them up and take them away, they no longer have the ability to do the three things that people do when we’re scared: The girls can’t run away from a juvenile corrections facility. They can’t flee because they’re held accountable for every move of the day. And they have to be responsive to the corrections officer, so they fight. They get sanctions put against them. That could be why they’re staying longer, but more study could tell us more about that.”
Is it coincidence, discrimination at work? I can’t articulate if it’s discrimination at work here or what the real reasons why. What we can say is there is something going on that causes girls, particularly, to be placed in more secure settings than males for lower level offenses and for longer periods of time.
What can be done about this? One of the things we can look at is are these kids, primarily a kid with a developmental delay or a kid with a trauma history, how are they interacting with the juvenile justice system? And are there ways to change some of that interaction. So how do the schools interact with the police? How do police interact with families? With the schools? The entire ecology of where the kid and the family reside, and how those systems respond to each other would be one of the first things we could look at. The second would really kind of thinking about how the court process works in general. Is there a way to look at how we can assess and respond to youth through a developmental lens. Looking at whether they understand the ramifications of what has gone on with them, where they’re going to end up, and are they cognitively able to participate in their own court process.