PHILADELPHIA (March 30, 2023) – A new report on girls who were arrested and brought into the control of the Philadelphia juvenile justice system exposes glaring gaps in care and interventions to support girls, especially those facing interpersonal challenges at home and in school.
The report — “Overlooked or Overscrutinized? A Case Study of Girls’ Justice in Philadelphia and Implications for the Design of a Fairer System” — examines girls who were arrested by Philadelphia Police and other law enforcement in 2019 and charged by the District Attorney’s Office (DAO). “Overlooked or Overscrutinized?” was authored by Adam Serlin, a former embedded youth justice fellow in the DAO, and Ciara Sheerin, DAO youth justice policy analyst, with support provided by the DAO Juvenile Court and Diversion Units.
While Philadelphia continues to experience declines in youth arrests, and a large majority of youth arrested are boys — both trends consistent with the juvenile justice system nationally – a significant number of girls are arrested and detained here for lack of non-police and non-court system alternatives that could be much more effective in addressing underlying trauma and any interpersonal conflict, the report finds. Alarmingly, 95% of girls arrested in Philadelphia in 2019 were Black and/or Hispanic – raising questions about ongoing efforts to address institutional racial and economic disparities in the poorest large city in the United States.
About 1 in 3 girls’ arrests in 2019 for which the DAO filed charges were the result of a school-based or home-based incident. In comparison, about 1 in 5 boys’ arrests in 2019 were the result of a school-based or home-based incident. Girls in Philadelphia and across other jurisdictions are far less likely to be arrested for offenses that pose serious risks to public safety – gun violence among girls is rare, for instance. Philadelphia’s juvenile system data trends are consistent with research from across the country indicating that girls are often disproportionately affected by school-based disciplinary practices as well as policing practices and policies related to responding to home-based incidents (such as allegations of adolescent to parent violence). Despite their generally demonstrated lower risk to public safety, girls who enter the juvenile justice system are often assessed by existing risk assessment tools as presenting similar risks for future delinquency as their male peers, which in turn may lead to the unnecessary use of intensive supervision programs once they enter the court system.
Youth justice leaders from the DAO, Defender Association, Philadelphia Juvenile Court, Department of Human Services (DHS), School District of Philadelphia, youth justice advocacy groups, and more than two dozen government and non-profit organizations on Thursday convened for a presentation and breakout group discussions of the “Overlooked or Overscrutinized?” report on girls justice in Philadelphia.
“Our new report on girls in the justice system demonstrates that 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 with caregivers and in school with peers,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said. “We have known for some time that for some girls, separation from home and community is more likely to compound trauma and harm – too often leading to an escalation in antisocial and violent behaviors, rather than rehabilitation and growth. The youth justice leaders convened today have decades of experience working with system-involved girls and know what interventions and programming are most effective for prevention and for supporting their development and growth into healthy, independent adults. We need less punitive options for many girls who are currently arrested, and more affirming resources and much more robust prevention – which ultimately will help us end detention and displacement of girls.”
“The DAO’s report is an important piece of research, providing insights and actionable recommendations to address how our justice system often works against young girls,” said Chief Defender Keisha Hudson. “Now is the time to for all of us to examine ways we can redirect and support girls — and boys — who come into contact with the justice system. Or, better yet, help them avoid it altogether.”
“This report maps out an impressive and much needed new approach to working with young women,” said Marsha Levick, chief legal officer of Juvenile Law Center. “The data and report paint a disturbing picture and we are disappointed to hear what is happening to our girls. The recommendations included are critical; the challenge will be in robust and thorough implementation.”
“The juvenile justice system owes it to girls to do right by them, ensuring that programs and services are readily accessible, uniquely designed to celebrate strengths while addressing needs, and are run by practitioners with proven interest, commitment and competence in gender-responsive programming,” said Timene Farlow, former Deputy Commissioner of DHS Juvenile Justice Services. “With the recognition that many girls in our system present with low risks for reoffending, we must be especially careful to avoid ‘overdosages’ — applying intensive, poorly matched interventions and for extended periods — which serve to worsen, rather than improve, outcomes.”
“I commend District Attorney Krasner for this groundbreaking study! I am proud to see Philadelphia leading the nation in examining the justice system’s impact on our most vulnerable residents. As this report makes amply clear, we are not doing enough for our girls,” City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier (3rd District) said. “We need to examine school-based and police policies on domestic violence to ensure we are providing girls the help they need. And while girls are only 18% of all youth arrests for which the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) filed charges, we need to make sure they receive the same range of services as young men. Most importantly, we must do everything in our power to invest in prevention services, so that fewer girls become involved in the justice system in the first place. I look forward to partnering with the District Attorney’s Office on implementing the recommendations presented in this report.”
Report co-author Adam Serlin, the founder and principal of Independent Variable, said: “The data in this report highlights issues that practitioners have been discussing for years. The most basic of these points is that in Philadelphia, as it is in many parts of the country, the fact that boys comprise such a large majority of youth who enter the juvenile justice system makes it easy for court stakeholders, service providers, funders, and researchers alike to inadvertently overlook the unique and different needs of girls. This, in turn, can lead to a lack of equitable resources for girls and the unnecessary use of intensive supervision programs designed largely for boys. Specific recommendations aside, the organizing principle of our work to write and publicize this report is to display how a targeted redesign of the juvenile justice system for girls may offer a unique chance for leaders to substantially downsize said system at limited risk to public safety, and to craft a fairer system for all youth.”
“This report raises issues that advocates, practitioners, and youth have experienced in their everyday lives, across multiple systems,” DAO Youth Justice Policy Analyst and report co-author Ciara Sheerin added. “These issues did not appear overnight, but instead are the product of years of systemic disenfranchisement and oppression, not only by the criminal legal system, but by all societal systems. As such, we hope that this report and the recommendations within it highlight the need for cross-system collaboration and reform. We also hope that stakeholders across these systems strive to listen to and uplift the voices of youth and families who are most affected by the failures of these systems. This report and initial conversations about changing the criminal legal system are only a first step. Transformative and effective change must center the voices of youth and families in the reform process.”
“Overlooked or Overscrutinized? A Case Study of Girls’ Justice in Philadelphia and Implications for the Design of a Fairer System” is available for review on the DA’s Office website. The DAO hopes that collaborative workshopping of recommendations and action steps to better serve girls and all youth will continue among system partners over the course of the year.
“Overlooked or Overscrutinized?” will be released as a series of five stages to address the cycle of girls’ justice involvement, and represents an attempt to use its access to juvenile justice data to lend transparency to a traditionally opaque system, and to generate a public and evidence-informed discussion on juvenile justice reform. The report is borne from a larger effort by the office to implement data-informed and human-centered performance management and innovation techniques across its Juvenile Court and Diversion Units, and to share any valuable lessons learned.
All data included in these reports were compiled and analyzed through a custom database and dashboard built to integrate the many disparate data sources in Philadelphia’s juvenile justice system. In service of the broader goal of increased transparency and knowledge in local juvenile justice systems, all data collection and analytic tools used to produce these reports will be released as open source for those who are interested in undertaking similar efforts. This effort is still in the works, but more details will be announced at a later date.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for the prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually. Learn more about the DAO by visiting PhillyDA.org.