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Girls in the Justice System: Gender Matters
Steve Nelson of Volunteers of America-Minnesota/Amicus

When you think of youth in trouble with the law, you probably think boys. That's because historically, boys were much more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system than girls, and often for more violent crimes.

That's changing. The National Center for Juvenile Justice reports that nationally girls now account for more than a quarter of the youth delinquency caseload, and that percentage is expected to grow.

Locally, that trend is even more pronounced. According to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension:

  • Girls' arrests now make up more than a third of all juvenile arrests in Minnesota, a 15 percent increase since 2000.

  • In Hennepin County, about 30% percent of those under juvenile court supervision are girls, which is also a 15 percent increase since 2000.

Road to criminal justice system is different for girls than boys; so are effective responses

While the numbers of girls getting in trouble with the law is becoming more equal between girls and boys, the road to criminal behavior looks very different. Compared with boys, girls in the justice system experience more significant trauma, including sexual violence, and tend to engage in more risky sexual behavior, experience more significant physical and mental health problems, and engage in more self-defeating behaviors, including running away and skipping school.

As a result, the traditional approaches used on boys in the justice system are largely less effective for girls. Jurisdictions across the country are beginning to recognize that gender-based approaches are a necessity when it comes to providing services to girls involved in juvenile justice.

As more people recognize the need for gender-specific approaches, the need for models of "what works" for girls in the justice system is also becoming clear.

Our program, Amicus Radius, helps girls come to terms with trauma, develop healthier relationships, build connections to what's strong and positive in a girl's life, and increase self-regulation skills. When we're successful, we see reduced rates of recidivism, more connection to education, and fewer out-of-home placements.

We serve up to 90 girls a year who are involved in Hennepin County's Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation. The girls, age 12-18, are referred by the courts and as a requirement of their probation must participate in the 12-week program.

We've experienced success underscored by the fact Radius was named the 2012 Program of the Year by the Minnesota Women's Consortium.

Program evaluation: What we've learned so far

But, we want to learn more, and share our results with girls' programs throughout the country. Since October 2011, we've worked with Wilder Research to identify the most effective elements of our program.

We're at the midpoint of the project. It's becoming clearer than ever how important it is to look at a girl's life holistically. She is influenced by many different people and the impact of any one program can be difficult to isolate. It's essential for her to build positive relationships, learn to talk about problems and deal constructively with conflict. Furthermore, things change quickly in young lives. As a result, we need to be nimble and connected in real time with what's happening in the life of a girl. Even our work studying the program has undergone many adjustments as we respond to changes.

Knowing this, our staff can help clear the path and offer tools to help each girl build or rebuild her own relationships. As one girl noted in a focus group, "I don't really (get along with) girls, but being around these girls, we are always together like a family now. I see how they feel and how they interact with each other, so it has helped me with my friends too."

As we begin moving into the next phase of the evaluation, we fully expect many more surprises as we work to offer a clearer picture of "what works" for girls in the juvenile justice system.

Steve Nelson wears many hats in his roles at Volunteers of America-Minnesota/Amicus, but in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Radius Evaluation project, his main hat has had the label of "learner." His title is Communications and Evaluation Manager.

Wilder Research, in collaboration with Amicus, Inc. (now Volunteers of America-Minnesota), was awarded a major grant by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, to conduct a 3-year evaluation of the Radius program. Please send any inquiries about the evaluation to Project Director Julie Atella, Wilder Research ( or 651-280-2658).



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Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, 451 Lexington Parkway North, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55104 Phone: 651-280-2000
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