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Girls of Color are being Disenfranchised by the Juvenile Justice System

The number of girls of color in the Juvenile Justice system has reached such an alarming level that it qualifies as a public health issue, due to the trauma suffered by the girls. For years, this public health crisis confronting our community has been documented in articles, research studies, and high-profile cases highlighting not only the disproportionate number of young girls of color in the juvenile justice system, particularly black and Latina, but also the lasting stigma that is imputed to the girls.

In my experience as Family Court Judge for over 15 years, and prior to that as an attorney representing children in Family Court cases, it is troubling that despite the research urging us to address the disproportionate number of girls of color in the juvenile justice system, this need is still not adequately addressed. New York University conducted a research project reviewing petitions filed against youth in Westchester County between January 2016 and June 2017. Some of the significant findings of this study include that once a girl is placed in a facility, that girl has a 1 in 2 chance of having a new juvenile delinquency petition filed against her compared to a 1 in 8 chance for boys in placement. Additionally, most girls were in placement on misdemeanor charges, primarily the charge of simple assault. Also, the number of Persons in Need of Supervision (PINS) petitions filed against girls highly outnumber these filings against boys. Although this is just a snapshot of what the data and research show, it demonstrates that as a community, we need to foster a level of dialogue and support for these youth that will create change and sustain it.

Thus, the future of juvenile justice is to take our current system beyond the resolution of a youth’s court case and beyond their time in detention. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the previously mentioned study conducted by New York University, under the New York State Girls’ Justice Initiative. This project is a collaboration led by the New York State Unified Court System implemented by the NYS Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children in partnership with New York University and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

In Westchester County, the data from that study was used to create the first gender-and-trauma-responsive court continuum in the state, launched in October 2018, called “GRIP” Court, which stands for Gender Responsive Initiatives and Partnerships. The mission of GRIP Court is to promote healing and provide opportunities, justice and support that improve outcomes for girls, in particular, girls of color who are at risk or involved in the juvenile justice system. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, a holistic approach is taken to each case by including all the various stakeholders – the presentment agency, the attorney for the child, the probation department, social workers– to identify how the specific needs of each youth can be met. What we have learned is that to create lasting change for the girls previously in detention, they must be provided with a level of stability and support in their communities that will exist long after their cases are resolved; this is where our responsibility lies.

We must look past the singular moment that brought the youth into the juvenile justice system and instead look at the larger context. We must ask ourselves, what caused this particular child to commit this crime? The answer may include sexual abuse, housing instability, living in poverty, immigration issues in a youth’s family, a need for mental health treatment, unhealthy relationships with family members, or any number of traumatic experiences. It is by learning how a youth got to the point of contact with the juvenile justice system that we will know what the appropriate intervention is to keep him or her out of the system permanently. Intervention may include having stable housing, having a tutor or a mentor, having a therapist or a counselor, taking dance classes or being involved in a drama club, or having an internship in a career path a youth wishes to pursue.

This will look different for each youth, but what each intervention has in common is that it provides each youth with meaningful partnerships equipping them with the tools and resources to go far beyond the juvenile justice system and to thrive. As national dialogue on issues of unfairness embeds itself in our legal system, let us not forget our girls who are the backbone of society.

Submitted by the Hon. Kathie E. Davidson, Administrative Judge of the Ninth Judicial District, Westchester County Supreme Court, New York State Unified Court System.


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