Understanding and Responding to the Needs of At-Risk and Delinquent Girls
Photo of teenage girls.

In the 1990s, a surge of girls' arrests brought female juvenile delinquency to the country's attention. By 2004, girls accounted for 30 percent of all juvenile arrests for violent offenses. The juvenile justice field struggled to understand why girls were becoming more involved in delinquency, how to prevent their delinquent behavior, and how best to respond to the needs of girls who were entering the system. Of particular interest was the question of whether girls were becoming more violent or if other factors contributed to their higher arrest rates.

OJJDP has long supported research on understanding girls' delinquency, particularly through its Girls Study Group, an OJJDP research project to investigate the roots of and solutions to girls' delinquency. The Office also provides publications, training and technical assistance, gender-specific programming, assessment tools, and other resources that address delinquency among girls.


Girls Study Group logo

In 2004, OJJDP convened the Girls Study Group, a team of multidisciplinary experts with theoretical and practical expertise related to female development, delinquency, and the juvenile justice system. The Study Group's initial findings suggest that girls are not more violent than before and confirm that girls engage in far less crime and delinquency than boys for nearly every offense. It was also observed that mandatory arrest policies and other changes in the juvenile justice system are associated with the higher arrest rates for girls.

Although a number of delinquency risk factors—such as family conflict, low academic achievement, disengagement from school, and a lack of community-based programs—affect both boys and girls, others are specifically associated with girls. These risk factors include early onset of puberty, a history of sexual abuse, depression, and anxiety. For example, studies of girls who are chronic runaways document significant levels of sexual and physical victimization, which in turn makes them vulnerable to subsequent victimization and engaging in behaviors that violate the law such as prostitution, survival sex, and drug use.

Researchers also found that a number of protective factors can prevent girls from becoming juvenile offenders. These protective factors include the involvement of a caring adult, school connectedness, academic success, and religiosity. This new understanding of female adolescent development points to solutions for helping girls avoid engaging in delinquent or risky behaviors.

OJJDP is publishing these and other findings of the Girls Study Group in a series of bulletins, which are available online via OJJDP's publications page.

As programs addressing girls' delinquency have proliferated at the state and local levels, it is important to have scientific information about program effectiveness. OJJDP is committed to scientific and comprehensive evaluations that determine what works in preventing and addressing girls' delinquency. In 2010, OJJDP funded three evaluations of promising programs for girls:

  • Young Women Leaders Program, a mentoring program for preventing delinquency in at-risk girls (University of Virginia).

  • VOICES curriculum, a multidimensional group intervention addressing trauma in adolescent girls (University of Connecticut).

  • Girls' Circle, a structured support group for girls ages 9–18 that integrates relational theory, resiliency practices, and skills training to increase positive relationships, personal and collective strengths, and competence in girls (Development Services Group). Girls' Circle is cited in OJJDP's Model Programs Guide.

Training and Technical Assistance

OJJDP's National Girls Institute, launched in 2010, will provide training and technical assistance to prevention, intervention, treatment, and aftercare programs for at-risk and delinquent girls across the nation. In addition to training and technical assistance, the institute will disseminate information; collaborate with researchers and program developers; form partnerships with federal, state, tribal, and local agencies; and develop policy. OJJDP's 3-year, $1.5-million grant was made to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency's Center for Girls and Young Women in Jacksonville, FL. Plans for the initial year include the creation of an advisory group composed of nationally recognized experts, including tribal experts; a nationwide assessment of the current training, technical assistance, and information needs of state, tribal, and local entities serving at-risk and delinquent girls; and the development of national standards of practice for those who work with girls in custody. A National Girls Institute Web site also is planned.

In October 2010, an updated OJJDP curriculum that trains law enforcement officers on the best ways to approach and interact with adolescent girls was unveiled at the annual meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in Orlando, FL. The course, developed over a period of several years through focus groups involving law enforcement professionals and experts in a wide range of disciplines, uses lectures, interactive discussions, and exercises to increase positive interactions with and decrease the arrest or incarceration of adolescent girls who may be at risk of or involved in delinquent behavior. For more information on this course, contact Ms. Stevyn Fogg at IACP.

OJJDP's National Training and Technical Assistance Center offers a training course, Gender-Responsive Programming for Girls, to address the needs of girls. It focuses on the unique experiences of young women as they relate to race, culture, development, economic status, and physical appearance; it may be used to enhance services in a range of settings, from community-based prevention programs for at-risk girls to intensive residential programs and detention.

Gender-Specific Programming

Following are examples of OJJDP-supported programs that focus on helping girls to avoid delinquency and to build a productive, successful future:

Alternatives for Girls helps homeless and high-risk girls and young women avoid violence, teen pregnancy and exploitation, and helps them to explore and access the support, resources and opportunities necessary to be safe, to grow strong and to make positive choices in their lives.

Girls and Gangs provides support and advocacy for girls and young women involved with the juvenile justice system through reentry services with an emphasis on skill-building workshops, individualized case management, health education, collaboration with public and private agencies, and public education.

Girls Inc. develops research-based informal education programs that encourage girls to take risks and master physical, intellectual and emotional challenges. Major programs address math and science education, pregnancy and drug abuse prevention, media literacy, economic literacy, adolescent health, violence prevention, and sports participation. In 2009, Girls Inc. reached over 900,000 girls through Girls Inc. affiliates, its Web site, and educational publications.

PACE Center for Girls provides delinquency-prevention programs to teenage girls. The goals of Practical Academic Cultural Education (PACE) are to deter school withdrawal, juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and welfare dependency.

In addition, OJJDP's Formula Grants program provides funds directly to states and territories to help them implement comprehensive juvenile justice plans for preventing and intervening in girls' delinquency. The plans are based on detailed studies of the needs in their jurisdictions. Juvenile Justice Specialists in each state administer the funding through subgrants to units of local government, local private agencies, and American Indian/Alaska Native tribes to support programs in accordance with legislative requirements.

Assessment Tools

To guide decisions within the juvenile justice system, judges, case managers, probation staff, and related professionals often rely on standardized instruments to assess the risks and needs of youth. Some have questioned whether the instruments in use are appropriate for girls. However systematic research on the validity of the instruments is lacking. OJJDP's Girls Study Group has reviewed hundreds of assessment instruments, and information about each instrument may be accessed by searching the Study Group's online database. Information also is available in the Study Group's bulletin, Suitability of Assessment Instruments for Delinquent Girls.

Other OJJDP Resources

In 2005, the Girls Study Group compiled a searchable Girls' Delinquency Bibliographic Database on girls' delinquency. The database cites references related to trends, causes, and correlates of girls' delinquency that have been collected and used during the literature review phase of the Study Group's research project.

OJJDP's Delinquency Web page and In Focus fact sheet, Girls Delinquency offer an overview of female delinquency and highlight OJJDP's research, programs, training and technical assistance, and publications that address this issue.

Future Directions

OJJDP recently formed an internal Girls Working Group to raise awareness of and enhance the coordination of initiatives on behalf of at-risk and delinquent girls across OJJDP, the Office of Justice Programs, and other components of the U.S. Department of Justice. The group aims to strengthen policy and practice within OJJDP and in states and localities to increase focus on the needs of girls and also the disproportionate response to girls of color at all decision points in the juvenile justice system.