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Philly's juvenile-justice system leaves girls out of programs that could help them, new report says

Philadelphia Inquirer - 4/3/2023

Apr. 3—A new report from the District Attorney's Office found that Black and Hispanic girls are disproportionately represented in Philadelphia's juvenile justice system — a system that routinely leaves them out of programs that could keep them out of detention facilities.

The report, released last week, followed a cohort of more than 400 girls arrested and charged in 2019, tracking their journeys into and out of the city's juvenile justice system through the end of 2021.

The report found that girls in Philly are less likely than boys to have previous arrest records, miss a court date, or be rearrested for new charges, but both groups are likely to be assessed as having equal risk for future delinquency, leading to a higher proportion of girls entering intensive court supervision than necessary.

Girls are also barred from several boys-only programs, including a community-based support group for youth returning from detention.

"The organizing principle of our work ... is to display how a targeted redesign of the juvenile justice system for girls may offer leaders a unique chance ... to craft a fairer system for all youth," said report coauthor Adam Serlin, a former youth justice fellow with the DAO, in a statement.

Boys constitute the majority of youth in the juvenile justice system, nationally and locally: Boys accounted for 81% of youth arrests in Philly that resulted in charges in 2019.

Serlin and his coauthor Ciara Sheerin argue this disparity leaves girls entrenched inside a system where they are overpoliced and underfunded, which can make reentry more difficult. Across the United States, girls face higher rates of sexual abuse while incarcerated, longer wait times for placements, and few gender-specific facilities.

"These issues did not appear overnight, but instead are the product of years of systemic disenfranchisement and oppression," said Sheerin.

Philadelphia's juvenile justice system came under scrutiny last year after a judge ordered state facilities to take custody of youth housed in West Philly's Juvenile Justice Services Center, which faced allegations of overcrowding and unsafe living conditions.

"Leaders at all levels of government must act with greater urgency to build and scale preventative and supportive interventions to keep more girls at home," said District Attorney Larry Krasner. "We need less punitive options."

Here are five takeaways from the report:

95% of girls arrested in Philly are Black or Hispanic

Nearly all girls charged in 2019 were girls of color.

"The discussion of girls' justice in Philadelphia is, very specifically, a discussion about the experiences of largely Black and/or Hispanic girls," reads the report.

Black girls constituted 82% of girls' arrests, even though Black children make up less than half of the city's youth population. Hispanic youth make up almost a quarter of Philadelphia's youth population, and Hispanic girls accounted for 13% of girls' arrests.

Girls are more likely to be arrested for incidents that take place at school

Philadelphia girls are twice as likely to be arrested for a school-based incident than Philadelphia boys, indicating they're disproportionately impacted by school-discipline policies.

"This establishes a relationship whereby girls' daily exposure to police to protect them ... may lead to their own overcriminalization for more minor infractions, such as fighting in school," says the report.

Studies show that Black students at all grade levels in particular are more likely to be disciplined at school. When it comes to Black girls, they are more likely than their white counterparts to receive harsh penalties for minor infractions, from unfinished coursework to messaging during class.

Girls present lower public safety risks. They are still about as likely to enter court-ordered supervision as boys.

Philadelphia girls are less likely to have a prior arrest when they enter the system, fail to appear in court, or get rearrested in a three year time period. Yet, they consistently score high on two scales the city's Juvenile Probation Department uses to predict recidivism, which can land girls in detention facilities when it may not be necessary.

Almost half of the boys arrested in 2019 had prior arrest records, compared with almost a quarter of girls. Over a quarter of boys also failed to appear in court, compared to 18% of girls.

Yet, both groups had similar recidivism predictions, leading similar proportions of Philly girls and boys to be placed in secure detention facilities.

Supervision rates "represent unnecessary levels of court-ordered restriction if examined solely within the context of the actual risk the average girl presents to broader public safety following an arrest," reads the report.

Several Philly-specific juvenile justice diversion programs aren't offered to girls

Three Philadelphia programs designed to shield youth "from the deepest ends of the juvenile justice system," are not available to girls — something that renders Philly's system unduly harsh on the average girl offender, the report says.

These programs include two reporting centers and a shelter that serve as alternatives for confinement, offering life skills workshops, arts education, employment coaching, and behavioral health services, among other things, that can ease the path to reentry.

The report describes the system as "designed largely to serve boys," leaving recently arrested girls with few options tailored to their needs, which can often include domestic violence or sexual assault counseling.

It would take buy-in from all parts of the juvenile justice system to change outcomes

The report outlines over 30 recommendations for stakeholders across Philadelphia's juvenile justice system, from state legislatures and the Philadelphia Police Department to prosecutors and school officials.

Still, the recommendations coalesce around one question: What if the juvenile justice system fit the audience it serves, youth — and more specifically — girls, too?

The report recommends Pennsylvania create a youth-specific criminal code that acknowledges how the still-developing brain of adolescent offenders can impact what they view as risky behavior worth engaging in or avoiding.

On the local side, the DA's office asks that police and school resource officers "be removed from school discipline" absent a threat to public safety and deploy social workers to home-based disputes involving youth.

Prosecutors are also encouraged to create youth-specific guidelines for issuing charges to create more pathways for diversion.

"Adjustments made to the way in which the juvenile justice system responds to girls can afford leaders a unique opportunity to downsize their systems and improve outcomes for all youth," the report reads, "all without compromising public safety."


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