American Judges Association


Date of this Version



Court Review, Volume 46, Issues 1-2, 16-23


Copyright © 2010 American Judges Association. Used by permission.


In recent years, the number of adolescent females sentenced to custody in the juvenile justice system has increased substantially, such that girls now comprise nearly one third of all juvenile arrests in the United States. A striking fact about these incarcerated adolescent female offenders is that approximately 75% suffer from one or more psychiatric disorders. In fact, rates of psychiatric disorder appear even higher among detained female youth than detained male youth, suggesting that incarcerated adolescent females may be the most psychiatrically impaired population in today’s juvenile justice system. To make matters worse, recent studies have shown that many incarcerated adolescent females have more than one psychiatric disorder—a phenomenon known as comorbidity, which is associated with a more difficult treatment response and severe impairment in life activities compared to single disorders. Thus, it is apparent that mental health problems among incarcerated adolescent females are both prevalent and severe, demanding attention from researchers, clinicians, and policymakers alike.

If left untreated, mental health problems among delinquent female youth may lead to a variety of poor outcomes, such as increased suicide risk, substance dependence, involvement in violent or unstable relationships, and parenting difficulties. Moreover, each of these poor outcomes may ultimately serve to strengthen the intergenerational cycle of criminal behavior and psychiatric impairment. For example, intergenerational research has shown that mothers with histories of aggression are likely to experience enduring behavioral, social, and health problems and are more likely to use harsh and ineffective parenting strategies, all of which may be transmitted to offspring via parental modeling of these behaviors and the unwholesome effects of growing up in risky, unhealthy home environments such as those often concomitant with antisocial parenting.