Changing Policy in San Francisco: Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

Article excerpt

Angela, 16 years old, was arrested for possession of drugs. She experienced abuse as a child, abandonment by her mother, addiction to drugs, the suicide of a friend, violence, and homelessness. While awaiting disposition of her case and placement in a suitable program, her multiple needs were not addressed and she ended up on her own. During this time, she was raped and relapsed into drug use.

Preface

Developing this project on girls in the juvenile justice system began in 1995 and was originally coordinated by Andrea Shorter of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a research and policy organization that also runs several programs for juvenile and adult offenders.(1) As youth advocates, the authors came together over our concern with the circumstances of girls in the San Francisco juvenile justice system. Most of us had worked with girls who were incarcerated, which motivated us to conduct this study. We also were aware that an excellent survey of resources for girls had been carried out by the Come into the Sun Coalition, but that the Coalition's extensive recommendations had not been implemented. We hoped that this study would deepen that report's contribution and would be a useful organizing tool to change how the juvenile justice system works with girls.

One of the first issues we grappled with was what it means to focus on girls. The needs of adolescent girls pose a challenge for the juvenile justice system, which was designed by men and has been structured on the fact that boys make up a majority of those in the system. We also did not want to take away from the concerns that young men of color are increasingly being incarcerated at an unprecedented rate. However, we felt that in the passion to find solutions to get boys out of the system, the fact that more and more girls were coming into the system was being ignored.

Our initial decision to focus on the Out-of-Home Placement (OOHP)(2) unit of San Francisco's Juvenile Probation Department was the result of several factors. The status of girls in the system was relatively unstudied; we envisioned this study as one of a series, and other aspects of girls' involvement would be researched in the future. OOHP provided a manageable venue to understand the invisibility of girls in the system and initial interviews with two of the people who ran this division highlighted a multitude of problems in this area relating to the lack of services for girls.

In addition, San Francisco's recently elected mayor, Willie Brown, had been pressuring the probation department to decrease the rate of incarcerating youth in juvenile hall. Reducing the number of youth who were locked up would necessitate more emphasis on preventive programs and alternatives to incarceration. Thus, that there are fewer programs for girls and many of their needs are not met in existing programs were immediate causes for concern.

Once this policy direction was identified as a starting place, our primary goal was to provide a vehicle through which the experiences and voices of girls would be heard. Our recommendations at the end of the study were developed from the suggestions made by the girls we interviewed, as well as by the people who work with them.

Too often policymakers exclude the people most affected by the decisions they make and research is not always used to create social change. We wanted to take a different approach - to give a voice to girls who have been invisible in the juvenile justice system. Our hope was that this study would not merely be published, but that it would lead to positive changes in the system itself. Therefore, we included recommendations that could form the basis for action if we were able to get them into the most effective hands. As will be seen below, this study has had an impact beyond our deepest expectations.

Introduction

Discussion about juvenile crime and delinquency usually presumes that offenders are boys. …