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September 14, 2015

‘Girls Court’ provides alternatives to prison for delinquent girls

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A court experiment in Florida attempts to help delinquent girls by promoting rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

Girls Court, as the experiment is called, started a year ago in Jacksonville as way to address the fact that many of the young women in the state’s juvenile justice system find themselves committing crimes due to trauma experienced earlier in life.

Girls in Florida’s juvenile justice system have experienced past abuse at a rate four times that of boys, according to a 2014 study. Thirty-one percent have been sexually abused and 41 percent have been physically abused.

“Girls experience trauma at a different frequency and different kinds of trauma than boys, girls react differently, and respond to that trauma differently,” said Judge David Gooding, one of the founders of Girls Court.

The court partners with children’s advocates to provide counseling and additional services for girls. Rather than prison time, girls may be sent to alternative schools like The Pace Center for Girls, a system of school across Florida that started 30 years ago in Jacksonville and offers high school classes and counseling.

Juvenile offenders like 17-year-old Soozee Stuart, who spent nearly two years in-and-out of juvenile detention after leaving home at 15, say childhood abuse translated into low self-esteem and anger that caused her to lash out. She said time spent in juvenile detention made her feel like she would never break the cycle.

“I feel like everybody had an attitude of, ‘You’re not going to make it anyways.’ So, I started believing it,” Stuart said.

Today, after being sent to the Pace Center and finding a support system of counselors and advocates helping her to succeed, Stuart has earned commendations from Judge Gooding and works toward making a better life for herself and her two-year old daughter.


Warm up questions
  1. What is the purpose of prison in the American justice system?
  2. What are some differences between the way the court system treats children, teenagers and adults who commit crimes?
  3. What happens when a teenager commits a serious crime?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Should boys and girls be treated differently by the court system? Why or why not?
  2. How do girls deal with trauma differently from boys?
  3. What is the difference between rehabilitation and incarceration? Which is more expensive?
  4. Why is counseling necessary to process and heal from trauma experienced in childhood?
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