In the juvenile legal system, many jurisdictions are adopting interventions that target girls for specialized treatment. The proliferation of so-called Girls Courts--or specialty courts designed to address the specific challenges faced by system-involved girls--is one such intervention. Girls Court rejects gender-blindness in the juvenile justice system in order to address the unique needs of system-involved girls. This Article enlists Critical Race Feminism to argue that, although well intentioned, these gender-specific juvenile courts enlist harmful gender stereotypes to guide girls towards an antiquated and hegemonic form of femininity. By examining the underlying assumptions that drive Girls Court, this Article assesses the line between gender-consciousness and gender stereotyping and critiques the role of law in entrenching harmful notions about what "good girls " ought to be.
Lifting ideologies from problem-solving courts, Girls Court purports to serve the most at-risk girls, with some jurisdictions placing special emphasis on holistic intervention for child victims of sexual exploitation. Girls Court targets girls, mostly girls of color, for enhanced scrutiny and surveillance. Although heightened services are needed for girls battling intersecting forms of oppression, this Article argues that Girls Court exemplifies important limitations to gender-specific reform. While the court's approach rightly acknowledges the role of gender in shaping outcomes for young people, it also targets girls for intrusive and punitive methods of social control. Girls Court funnels girls towards a very specific notion of girlhood--one centered in white, middle-class notions of femininity. Through criminalization, an emphasis on sexual purity, and a desire to instill obedience, Girls Court advances certain subordinating stereotypes about girls, particularly girls of color.
At its core, this Article argues for an increased duty of care when it comes to programming for girls. It urges a careful examination of all the messages we send, and the values we promote, when we target young girls for intervention.
It is an early morning session of a Girls Court in California and a female judge presides over a routine progress report. (1) Sitting in the gallery are representatives from a local teen clinic and a county organization that provides services to Commercially Sexually Exploited Children. (2) A young brown-skinned girl sits beside her attorney, slightly hunched over with her head cast down. She recently ran away while en route to a court ordered group home, euphemistically referred to as a "placement." Her mother is present at the hearing and sits behind her in the gallery with the Girls Court service providers. Her mother, the District Attorney, and the judge all believe that an out-of-state placement would be best for her, and that the girl needs to be removed from her current environment. The girl is opposed, but says very little. During the proceeding, her mother stands up to address the court. According to the girl's mother, after her daughter fled the rehabilitation program, the mother found her in the charge of a pimp. The situation was dangerous--for both the mother and her child. As the mother addresses the court, her desperation is palpable. The mother begins to describe her altercation with the exploiter, but the presiding judge interrupts her. The judge explains that part of the court's duty is to protect the health and well-being of the child, and this includes protecting the child from degradation through the recounting of traumatic experiences. The judge is stem yet compassionate. She gestures towards the crowded courtroom, explaining that here, the child is particularly vulnerable to an invasion of privacy that could harm or humiliate her. The judge turns to the girl inviting her to speak. When she finally speaks, her voice is soft and timid, highlighting the intensity of the reprimand. "I don't know," she whispers. Then a little louder she mutters, "My grades were better when I was inside," referring to her time inside the juvenile jail school. "And, well ... that made me feel some kinda way." The judge concludes that an out-of-state placement is best for the girl. After a short lecture from the judge, a court officer escorts the girl out of the courtroom door and back to the holding area. Shortly after, another girl enters the courtroom through the same door.
Over the last decade, as problem-solving courts have emerged in the criminal justice system, courts like this one, so-called "Girls Courts," have developed to address the specific challenges of young women in the juvenile legal system. (3) Drawing from common practices in juvenile drug courts, Girls Courts rely on heightened disciplinary and rehabilitative practices as a response to female delinquency. (4) Law enforcement, legal professionals, (5) and criminologists have lauded Girls Courts as an appropriate way to address the specialized needs of adolescent girls in the juvenile justice system. (6) As a result, Girls Courts have spread across states, including in California, (7) Michigan, (8) Hawai'i, (9) and Florida. (10)
The organization and programming of Girls Courts varies across jurisdictions, (11) but the scene described above illustrates how Girls Courts approach system involvement for young girls. For someone unfamiliar with juvenile court practice and procedure, Girls Courts raise many questions. One might question the presence of social service providers in the court, who are enlisted to direct the girl's supervision. One might also note the role of families who, battling the everyday violence of poverty, commonly rely on the court to fulfill unmet social needs. When the girl speaks on her own behalf, one might note her explicit reference to school and academic achievement. Why would she choose to discuss school in this moment? Is school important to her? Was it nervous chatter? Or, does she know that schooling carries significant weight in this court?
Of particular importance is the procedural posture of the case. It is not a disposition (sentencing in juvenile court) or adjudicative proceeding (conviction in juvenile court), but a progress report. This is because the girl's case has already been adjudicated and she is now under court supervision. In fact, the term "Girls Court" is slightly misleading. Girls Court is not a specialty "court," where trials and other proceedings take place. (12) Girls Court is a post-adjudicative intervention that is available only after a juvenile proceeding is completed and a girl is declared a ward of the court. (13) Critically, to be eligible for Girls Court, a girl's juvenile case must be adjudicated in a manner that concludes her guilt, either because of an admission of guilt or a finding of guilt at trial. In this regard, Girls Court is not like adjudication, but is more like an augmented form of probation. (14) This distinction points to an underlying limitation of the court--being in Girls Court does not impact how the girl is charged or tried once in the system. It does not affect whether the girl is labeled guilty or innocent. Girls Court only influences how the girl is supervised once her guilt has been determined. Since the purported mandate of juvenile court is to look beyond guilt and innocence, Girls Court enters the picture to guide her rehabilitation.
This Article examines Girls Court and considers the role Girls Court plays in the lives of girls in the juvenile legal system. It asks whether Girls Court addresses the particular issues that system-involved girls face. Most importantly, this Article draws from Critical Race Feminism to critique the underlying notions of gender and femininity that Girls Court promotes. While girls enter Girls Court for a wide array of conduct, this Article pays specific attention to how Girls Court addresses the gender specific needs of Commercially Sexually Exploited girls and girls considered at risk for exploitation. In every jurisdiction, Girls Court operates on the fundamental premise that girls are different from boys and that this difference influences their development, social experience, and relationships. While there is much to say about the treatment of boys in the juvenile system, as boys remain the largest population of system-involved youth, this Article attends to gender as it is understood and reified in Girls Court. Examining how gender and gender disadvantage is constructed in Girls Court provides an opportunity to understand how gender stereotypes function more broadly in the juvenile legal system.
The aim of this Article is both descriptive and normative. It provides an account of Girls Court, and describes its mode of operation. It also challenges and critiques the means by which Girls Court operates. Specifically, it enlists Critical Race Feminism to argue that practices and policies in Girls Court advance antiquated and harmful gender stereotypes about appropriate girlhood. Put another way, Girls Court interventions are constructed around rigid notions of femininity that actually work to discourage independence and autonomy in girls. This Article proceeds in four parts. Part I describes the social and political climate that gave rise to Girls Court. Part II situates Girls Courts in a long history of well intentioned, but misguided, juvenile justice reforms. Part II goes on to introduce the concept of hegemonic femininity. Borrowing from Critical Race Feminism, I use this theory as an interpretive lens through which to examine the work of Girls Court. Part III complicates the standard narrative around Girls Courts. The claim I advance here is that Girls Court draws on the patriarchal structure of the family and the coercive power of the law to gain control over girls. In doing so, the court adopts stereotypes about the value of female obedience. As I explain, the aim of court intervention is to secure...