UT study finds girls serve longer sentences than boys in juvenile justice system

Eunice Ali

Girls are sentenced to serve in detention facilities for longer periods than boys in juvenile justice settings, according to Erin Espinosa, research associate within the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health at the UT School of Social Work.  

“I’m excited to get the work out there,” Espinosa said. “People get a chance to read it, understand it and maybe let it inform policies.”

Espinosa said the study aimed to find whether girls are held longer in confinement than boys in the case of low-level offenses, such as underage drinking. Overall, girls were detained for five days longer than boys prior to trial, and girls were released at a much slower pace than boys when tried for these low-level offenses, according to the press release.

The strongest predictor of where these youth went in the system was whether they had a traumatic past, Espinosa said.

“It was not [even] about how bad their crime was,” Espinosa said.

The study also found that girls experienced past traumatic experiences almost twice as often as boys. Compared to boys, delinquent girls are more likely to devalue themselves, commit suicide and run away from home, according to the study.

Co-author Jonathan Sorensen, a criminal justice professor at East Carolina University, said what these youth needed was supportive mental health care to stop the cycle of trauma.

“The system fails them,” Sorensen said. “A lot of those girls have been traumatized; they experienced some type of victimization, and then of course it kind of snowballs.”

Microbiology senior Kristin Montera said she felt “shocked and a bit offended” when she found out about the study.

“I thought it would be the other way around,” Montera said.

UT criminal justice professor Michael Lauderdale said juvenile justice is meant to be restorative rather than punitive in nature.

“The idea behind juvenile justice is [that] the state serves as a parent to the minors, seeking to correct and normalize their behaviors,” Lauderdale said. “This is unlike the adult system, [in which] the state serves as a vehicle to punish and remove [the offenders] as a threat to the community.”

Lauderdale said it would be best to return the minors home and let the parents or caregivers work with the issues for an indeterminate period of time during which state-issued social workers would report the progress of the children to the judge.

“That’s the least costly and most normalized option,” Lauderdale said.