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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. Further, more young girls are being arrested for more serious offences than we have seen in the past. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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