Fact Sheet: Young Female Offenders

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Fact sheets undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication. 
About the author: This article is part of the Undergraduate Author Series, which means that it was written by an undergraduate university student. This article was written as a guest post by Laura Haringsma, a third-year psychology student at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

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In recent years, the number of girls entering the juvenile justice system has increased, though research in this field is fresh and still emerging[1]. Further, more young girls are being arrested for more serious offences than we have seen in the past[2]. This increasing number has made it necessary to understand how young female offenders are both similar and different to young male offenders, in order to effectively meet their needs in the juvenile court system and rehabilitation process.

The intent of this fact sheet is to aid those working with young female offenders by reviewing information regarding the risk factors for young female offenders, and the efforts to implement gender-specific rehabilitation.

Risk Factors

Girls exhibit certain risk factors significantly more often than boys. This indicates that such risk factors ought to be considered when assessing recidivism potential. Research has shown that, compared to young male offenders, young female offenders show higher rates of past sexual and emotional abuse, physical abuse and neglect, low self esteem, running away, and number of out-of-home placements[3,4]. Females also show more clinical diagnoses of major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety, and disruptive disorders[2]. Possession of co-morbid diagnoses of these internalizing disorders is more likely among young females in the juvenile court system, (compared to young males,) especially since their offences often involve externalizing behavioral problems such as aggression and conduct disorders[5].

Research also indicates that certain risk factors may lead to different delinquent responses in girls and boys. For example, risk may accelerate more rapidly in girls with low levels of family dysfunction, as compared to boys who also exhibit low levels of family dysfunction. Similarly, research also suggests that peer delinquency may also predict recidivism stronger for boys than for girls[6].


Despite the growing field of research regarding gender-specific rehabilitation programs for youth in the juvenile justice system, little is still currently known about the effectiveness of such programs. However, due to concerns regarding risk factor differences between girls and boys, the juvenile justice system has begun improving treatment and intervention programs for teenage girls who have been incarcerated and considered high-risk[7].

Research concerning the mental health needs and barriers of young female offenders suggests that these girls may likely be more open to therapeutic interventions, such as counselling or mental health services, as opposed to other forms of treatment, with regards to their re-entry into society[7]. Young female offenders should be exposed to a continuity of treatment and care rather than being involved in treatment for only a short period of time. This care should incorporate graduated sanctions, meaning that a variety of sanctions (or sentences) are made available to each offender, and that the severity of the sentence will increase accordingly with the severity of the offence[8,9]. Intervention, prevention, and intermediate sanctions, which include the various sentences that fall between the two extremes of prison and probation, should also be acknowledged, in order to best meet the needs of these girls[10].

It has been shown that, in reducing recidivism in young offenders, comprehensive programs which target multiple risk factors appear to be most effective for both female-specific programs and programs which target both genders[3].


Though the current information regarding young female offenders and gender specific rehabilitation programming is scarce, the field is beginning to grow, and more information is becoming readily available. Emerging research in the field is making it easier to understand how young female offenders differ from young male offenders, which in turn is leading to further improvement and implementation of gender-specific rehabilitation programming.

Quick summary

  • Research regarding young female offenders and gender-specific treatment is a relatively new field of research.
  • It is becoming increasingly more important to understand the differences between young male and female offenders.
  • Young female offenders display different risk factors than young male offenders do.

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  1. Burnette, M. L. (2006). Understanding aggression among young female offenders: The influence of psychopathology, victimization, and borderline personality traits. (ProQuest Dissertations and Theses). University of Virginia, Virginia, USA.
  2. Garcia, C.A., & Lane, J. (2010). Looking in the rearview mirror: What incarcerated women think girls need from the system. Feminist Criminology, 5, 227-243. doi:10.1177/1557085110376341
  3. Zahn, M. A., Day, J.C., Mihalic, S.F., & Tichavsky, L. (2009). Determining what works for girls in the juvenile justice system. Crime & Delinquency, 55, 266-293. doi:10.1177/0011128708330649
  4. Machinski, N. (2007). Gender differences in risk and protective factors of repeat juvenile offenders. (ProQuest Dissertations and Theses). Widener University, Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology.
  5. Gavazzi, S. M., Botstic, J. M., Lim, J., & Yarcheck, C. M., (2008). Examining the impact of gender, race/ethnicity, and family factors on mental health issues in a sample of court-involved youth. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34, 353-368. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2008.00077.x
  6. Schwalbe. C. S., (2008). A meta-analysis of juvenile justice risk assessment instruments: Predictive validity by gender. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35, 1367-1381. doi:10.1177/0093854808324377
  7. Fields, D., & Abrams, L. S., (2010). Gender differences in the perceived needs and barriers of youth offenders preparing for community re-entry. Child Youth Care Forum, 39, 253-269. doi:10.1177/0093854808324377
  8. Bloom, B., Owen, B., Deschenes, E. P., & Resenbaum, J., (2002). Moving toward justice for female juvenile offender in the new millennium: modeling gender-specific policies and programs. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 18, 37-56. doi:10.1177/0093854808324377.
  9. Cooley, V. A., (2009). Implementation and effects of graduated sanctions for juvenile offenders. (ProQuest Dissertations and Theses). The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA.
  10. Greene, H. T. (2009). Intermediate Sanctions. Encyclopedia of race and crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

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Overview of Fact Sheet topics covered to date