Diminishing Returns? Threshold Effects of Dispositions and Recidivism Among Court-Involved Girls

AuthorNicole C. McKenna,Valerie R. Anderson
Published date01 November 2021
Date01 November 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 11, November 2021, 1557 –1575.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211003119
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Threshold Effects of Dispositions and Recidivism
Among Court-Involved Girls
University of Cincinnati
This study examines juvenile court responses among justice-involved girls. We analyze 10 years of court records on girls
(N = 1,102) from a Midwestern juvenile court to assess the impact of various aspects of placements and dispositions on
recidivism outcomes. We explore how the number of dispositions girls receive, the type of disposition, and type of placement
affect 2-year recidivism. Our findings indicate there may be a threshold effect to receiving dispositions—receiving three or
more dispositions was significantly related to increased recidivism. Furthermore, the combination of receiving both treatment
and sanction dispositions was significantly related to an increased likelihood of recidivism. Girls who received only commu-
nity-based placements were more likely to recidivate than those who did not receive any dispositions. This study advances
our understanding of court responses to girls and how these responses influence girls’ experiences and outcomes while
involved with the juvenile justice system.
Keywords: juvenile justice; girls; gender; sanctions; recidivism; dispositions
The goal of the juvenile justice system is to reduce recidivism by intervening in the lives
of delinquent youth early and steering them toward the “right path.” The juvenile justice
system aims to take a rehabilitative approach compared with the adult criminal justice sys-
tem to reduce the likelihood of future juvenile offending (Steinberg & Scott, 2003; Sullivan,
2019). While many juvenile dispositions and interventions may be treatment oriented, such
as counseling or job training programs, supervision and surveillance are often paired with
treatments. Goals of the system may also differ based on gender. For example, the historic
paternalism of courts has led to practices that use the juvenile justice system to obtain
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Nicole C. McKenna,
School of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, PO Box 210389, Cincinnati, OH 45221-0389, USA;
e-mail: mckennnc@mail.uc.edu.
1003119CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211003119Criminal Justice and BehaviorMcKenna, Anderson / Short Title
services for girls they could not otherwise access, to protect girls from sexual victimization,
and to prevent teen pregnancy (Sherman, 2013). These responses arise out of fears of
expressions of sexuality, and the intolerance of girls who are not compliant has impacted
arrest, charge, and detainment decisions of girls who come in contact with the system
(Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2012; Gaarder et al., 2004; Sherman, 2013). Multiple competing
goals may undermine the system’s ability to actually be rehabilitative—especially for girls.
There are multiple responses courts use for juveniles including community service, indi-
vidual and family therapy, mentoring, probation, detention, residential treatment, and more
(Feld, 2009; Ryan et al., 2014). Often times, youth involved in the system are required to
participate in more than one service. While it may be beneficial to receive multiple disposi-
tions, there may be a point in which multiple dispositions become “too much of a good
thing,” resulting in potential over-programming of youth. As girls usually present to juve-
nile courts with lower criminogenic risks (as measured by standardized risk assessments)
and with less severe charge types (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006), it is likely that less court
intervention can lead to positive effects for girls (Creaney, 2012). Prior research on dosage
has been measured using the number of hours of services, or supervision contact (Bourgon
& Armstrong, 2005; Lipsey, 1995). This study broadens the scope of “dosage” to encom-
pass the number of dispositions. It is anticipated that while it may be beneficial for girls to
receive some dispositions, there may be a “threshold effect” in which the amount or type of
court intervention becomes iatrogenic. The number of dispositions, types of placement, and
types of dispositions are important aspects of court responses to explore, especially taking
gender into account.
It is common for youth to receive multiple types of dispositions while court-involved,
making it difficult to tease out individual program effects. While each individual program
evaluation is helpful, categorization of multiple dispositions can help us evaluate broader
trends in which types of programs are successful for girls. This study examines various
programming outcomes of girls in a Midwestern court. This study explore how juvenile
court responses impact girls’ recidivism via the number of dispositions girls are required to
participate in, the type of dispositions they are sentenced to (treatments versus sanctions),
and the type of placement they must be in (community-based or out-of-home placement).
Various goals of the juvenile justice system (e.g., social control and social welfare) are used
as the theoretical framework to guide this study. The current project begins with an over-
view of the goals of the juvenile justice system and detail the various methods courts use to
respond to youth delinquency. A series of logistic regression models were used to explore
the relationship between court responses to girls and 2-year recidivism rates. To conclude,
we provide a discussion of our findings and the implications of our study, focusing on the
ways in which our study contributes to advancing knowledge around girls’ experiences and
outcomes in juvenile courts.
The juvenile justice system was developed to act as a “kind and just parent,” guiding
youth in the right direction (Ward & Kupchik, 2010). A separate system for juveniles was
created because youth are immature and therefore, less criminally responsible (Scott &
Steinberg, 2008). Youth have heightened reward sensitivity, slower development, and

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