Over the last two decades, the total number of juvenile arrests in the United States has steadily decreased. Notably, during that same time period, the proportion of girls in the juvenile justice system has increased at every stage, including arrests, detentions and probation. According to a national report, “Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls,” (Francine T. Sherman, Esq. and Annie Balck, Esq. in partnership with the National Women’s Law Center and The National Crittenton Foundation), these statistics are the result of numerous disparities in the treatment of girls in the juvenile justice system. The majority of girls in the juvenile justicesystem have experienced abuse, violence, poverty and neglect. Critically, girls are more likely to be arrested for non-violent infractions (e.g., prostitution and theft) that are directly connected to abuse and poverty, and their violent offenses (e.g., simple assault and disorderly conduct) are frequently related to domestic or partner violence. Sherman and Balck contend that girls are often placed in detention as a means to protect them from violence and abuse.

However, this well-intentioned practice may inadvertently cause other problems, such as increased likelihood of future incarceration. Sherman and Balck argue that these girls instead need “gender-responsive, culturally-informed supports,” including access to respite centers and community based programs that teach life skills and foster positive relationships. The authors conclude that “by assessing the impact of system decisions on girls throughout the juvenile justice process and modifying many existing juvenile justice reforms to fit the needs of girls, juvenile justice systems can be redesigned to promote healthy relationships, shore up girls’ social supports and give girls agency over their lives.”

In Ventura County, the gender disparities in the juvenile justice system are being addressed, in part, by Girls, Inc. This local nonprofit is a research, education and direct advocacy organization that “inspires girls and young women to be strong, smart and bold” and empowers them “to achieve personal, social, economic and political success.” Among its many endeavors, the local Girls, Inc. organization provides gender-specific programming to girls in the detention and commitment units at the Juvenile Justice Complex (JJC) in Oxnard. Program topics include self-esteem building, job skills training, college-bound education, adolescent health, violence prevention and economic literacy – all tailored to our local population of girls and aiming to reduce recidivism. The program is operated by Devorah Elizalde and supported by a small staff and many volunteers.

For the past year, Women Lawyers of Ventura County (WLVC) members Charmaine Buehner, Rennee Dehesa, Jill Friedman, Jacquelyn Ruffin and Jaclyn Smith have been volunteering at the JJC through Girls, Inc. They have conducted writing workshops, participated in mock interviews, facilitated cultural programs and assisted in self-esteem activities. Several new WLVC volunteers, including Jessica Arciniega, Sasha Collins, Katherine Hause Becker, Kathleen Fellows, Vanessa Frank, Kymberley Peck and Rabiah Rahman, will begin volunteering at the JJC this year.

The effort to positively influence our local population of incarcerated girls can be a community endeavor. For example, WLVC recently conducted a book drive for the Girls, Inc. library at the JJC. Thanks to generous donations from local law firms, numerous community members and individuals from across the country, the Girls, Inc. library was supplemented by a diverse collection of more than 125 empowering, inspiring and highly relevant books. When personally delivering the books to a group of thirteen girls at the JJC in early February, Collins, Ruffin and Smith shared their personal perspectives on the value of reading as a means of self-discovery, problem solving and healthy entertainment. They told the girls that books were donated from the local community and from people as far away as New York. The girls received a clear message that their community supports and believes in them.

As the books were passed around the room in sets of five or six, each girl selected from three to twelve books that she immediately wanted to read. Individually and collectively, the girls expressed their sincere gratitude for this token of encouragement from the community.

However, the work of ensuring that our local juvenile justice system comports with the needs of girls is far from complete. Girls, Inc. can use more volunteers at the JJC. The nonprofit is often in need of in-kind donations, including updated devices for its technological literacy program. Perhaps most importantly, Girls, Inc. aspires to open a center in Ventura County that provides preventative programming for at-risk girls, community-based alternatives to detention and post-incarceration support. Local law firms and attorneys are welcome to get involved. For more information, contact Jacquelyn Ruffin at jruffin@mwgjlaw.com.

 Jacquelyn D. Ruffin is an/ associate at Myers, Widders, Gibson, Jones & Feingold, LLP. Her practice focuses on business transactions, real estate matters and public entity law. She can be reached at jruffin@mwgjlaw.com.

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