AUSTIN, Texas — Females in the Texas juvenile justice system are often at greater risk of serving longer sentences and having a mental health need than their male counterparts, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

juvenile justice by Dagny Gromer
Photo by flickr user Dagny Gromer via Creative Commons

In a cross-system study, Erin Espinosa, a research associate at the School of Social Work’s Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health, looked at 5,019 juveniles across three large urban counties in Texas during a two-year period. Results, published in the latest issue of Criminal Justice and Behavior, show that female juveniles serve significantly longer periods of confinement in local facilities than their male counterparts. Findings also show that females with histories of traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse are kept in out-of-home care for longer periods than males. These findings complement prior research by Espinosa, published in 2013, which showed that female juveniles are approximately at seven times greater risk of out-of-home placement.

“Oftentimes aspects of juvenile incarceration like the sound of footsteps down a hallway or being physically restrained can trigger memories of past sexual trauma especially for girls,” Espinosa said. “As a result, they may bite, kick or slap, resulting in new charges that lead to extended stay or commitment to state care. We now know that not only are girls more likely to be removed from their home and placed in institutional care for violations of court orders than boys, but once there they are also likely to serve longer sentences.”

Study findings include:

  • Females were held, on average, five days longer in pretrial detention facilities than their male counterparts despite their offenses being less serious;
  • Female scores on the mental health need measure were 25 percent higher than those of males;
  • Females experienced nearly twice as many past traumatic experiences as males;
  • Being female increased a juvenile detainee’s likelihood of remaining in confinement by 12.5 percent over being male; and
  • Females were released at a much slower pace than males when adjudicated for status offenses, but males were released from confinement at a slower pace than females as the severity of their offenses increased.

The study was published online first at: