Almost without noticing, girls have become a major component of the juvenile justice system – but once inside the walls, they are jammed into a system designed for men and boys.  And the problem is getting worse, not better, with the dramatic cutback in state funding for projects like the award-winning Girl’s Advocacy Project (GAP), one of the only comprehensive projects in the state of Florida serving girls since 1999 while they are in detention.

Vicki Lukis, GAP’s Executive Director and a sustaining member of the Junior League of the Palm Beaches, thinks we need to change that – both the number of girls involved in the juvenile justice system and specifically detention, and the system that wasn’t designed to meet their needs.

Why should we care?  Juvenile justice is an important issue for The Junior Leagues.

More than 14,000 girls are now incarcerated in the U.S., according to the latest data from the American Civil Liberties Union. The state of Florida has the unique distinction of having both the largest number of incarcerated girls as well as the fastest increase among its inmate population comprised of girls. Girls who wind up in the criminal justice system are disproportionately more likely than boys to have been victims of violence themselves, particularly physical and sexual violence. The trauma resulting from physical and sexual abuse leads to emotional and/or social difficulties that can be manifested in truancy, alcohol/drug abuse and/or violence.

A lack of proper intervention strategies and access to social services results in many communities opting to handle the problems caused by these girls by instead placing them in detention/residential programs that often appear more like county jails and prisons. The tough corrections environment (use of physical force and restraints by guards, punishment by isolation, etc.) only compounds their trauma, leading to continued or more destructive behaviors, which, more often than not, results in a cycle in and out of the juvenile and criminal justice system.  Worse yet, many states have increased the number of girls that are direct filed into the adult system resulting in girls serving lengthy sentences in a system geared towards adult offenders.

Looking at what GAP has been able to achieve against these odds, Vicki says, “The need is great – but so are the rewards.  All of our programs are structured to teach these young women that they have the power within to make positive choices in their lives.  We teach them vital life management skills that will assist them when they return to their lives on the outside. This is an amazing program not only for the difference that we are making with the girls we serve but for the difference it is making in the lives of our League volunteers.”

The GAP program began as an initiative at the Junior League of Miami and has been subsequently adopted by the Junior Leagues of the Palm Beaches [and Greater Orlando and Fort Myers].  Despite GAP’s obvious success (the program is now in its 11th year), funding is threatened by Florida’s budget issues, but the Junior Leagues of Florida State Public Affairs Committee continues to advocate for continued state support of gender specific programming for girls involved in the juvenile justice system.