Using Evaluation to Improve Outcomes for Justice-Involved Girls

April 11, 2016 | Caroline Glesmann


As a teenager, Christine* had a difficult home life. Frequent conflicts with her mother and abuse from an older family member led her to run away from home many times. She turned to alcohol and drugs to block out the pain and trauma from the abuse; and her school attendance, grades, and self-confidence all suffered. After her second arrest for a low-level offense, Christine was referred to a local probation department program that offered case management and counseling services. The program helped Christine cope with the trauma, address her substance abuse, and make up school credits. The program setting was as important as the services: Staff created a supportive, strengths-based environment that encouraged Christine to develop healthy, prosocial relationships and focus on building a more positive future. 

If you work with young women who are justice involved or at risk of involvement, you probably know someone like Christine. Girls who come in contact with the justice system tend to experience high levels of trauma, abuse, family challenges, and school disconnection. In addition they have gender-specific needs, including those related to pregnancy and parenting and a desire for relationships. 

With girls representing a growing segment of youth in the juvenile justice system, programming must be designed to effectively meet their needs. Programs that work well for justice-involved boys and men do not always translate well for girls and women. Taking a boy’s program or facility and “painting it pink” does not make it appropriate for girls. It also is important to acknowledge that girls may share some common characteristics, but they are not a homogenous group. For programs to be effective, factors such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression must be considered.

Fortunately, many systems are implementing gender-responsive programming and practices aimed at addressing and honoring girls’ specific needs, challenges, and assets. Program evaluation plays an important role in determining the effectiveness of these programs. Evaluation offers a framework to assess a program’s operations and/or outcomes and can serve a range of practical purposes. 

The National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) has evaluated several programs designed for girls and young women. For example, the Alameda County [California] Probation Department’s Reaffirming Young Sisters’ Excellence (RYSE) program sought to prevent additional justice involvement by participants. RYSE promoted development of prosocial skills and academic and vocational competencies; provided family-centered services; and featured small, girls-only probation caseloads. Programming included interventions directed toward gender-specific needs, such as pregnancy prevention. NCCD’s evaluation of RYSE found that the program’s gender-specific continuum of services was more effective than traditional probation in helping girls adhere to their probation, restitution, and community service requirements.  

As another example, the Stanislaus County [California] Girls Juvenile Justice Initiative was designed to comprehensively address justice-involved girls’ needs in the county while maximizing available local resources. The initiative’s core components included convening a task force to drive gender-responsive reform locally; providing gender-responsive training to Stanislaus County Probation Department staff and partners; and implementing a gender-responsive risk, strengths, and needs assessment and supervision system. The Gender-Responsive Alternatives to Detention program, which serves girls on probation with a gender-specific approach, is another initiative component. NCCD’s evaluation of the initiative showed that its approaches are promising, and the probation department is heading in the right direction with its system reform efforts. Moreover, services are improving outcomes for participants.   

As in these two examples, systems must be prepared to meet the specific needs of justice-involved girls and young women. Evaluation is an important tool for strengthening the development and implementation of appropriate programming and practices for them.  


*Name has been changed