Girls Only: Kent County launches unique program for young offenders

KENT COUNTY, Mich. – It’s a growing concern nationwide, but the Kent County judicial system now has a place for a group of young offenders who often get overlooked.

Judge Patricia Gardner, the longtime Kent County magistrate behind the state’s second Girl’s Court, indicated numbers of female juvenile offenders is up locally. The new Kent County Girl’s Court program is an effort to combat that, but it wasn’t without some hard work and research.

“All the programming in juvenile justice is really male-focused,” said Judge Gardner, who spent nearly two years with her team researching similar programs in the state and nation, including the state’s first in Genesee County. “This is a unique effort to address high risk girls within Kent County over a four month program that allows for far more frequent court hearing presentation.”

Aside from being ages 15, 16 or 17, to qualify, girls must be ‘high risk’ offenders who have a background with sexual or drug abuse, or mental health issues – often times leading to their eventual law breaking. But the program is specifically designed to tackle those issues, and get to the source of the unlawful behavior instead of just punishing it.

“You’re going to keep seeing them continue to be referred unless you create an intervention that can successfully address the trauma and then the underlying delinquent behavior,” added Judge Gardner.

As part of their inaugural four month program, which started in February with four participants, girls are required to go before Judge Gardner twice a month. Typical juvenile offenders are only required to see a judge every 90 days.

It’s a program for women, by women.

“This is a strong women process,” said Judge Gardner. “They have a woman judge, a woman [parole officer] a woman [parole officer] supervisor, a woman attorney, a woman therapist, women surveillance, women mentors…”

“It does take a village, I think, to raise up some of these young kids,” said program Parole Officer Khris Westmoreland. “We don’t expect perfection, we expect there to be bumps and for them to make mistakes and hopefully just learn from the mistakes and not continue to make the same ones.”

The girls meet in group and individual settings throughout the four month process, but also participate in community activities outside the courtroom. Since February, they’ve visited the Michigan State University Women’s Conference and taken a self-defense class.

“They begin and they’re not that excited,” said Judge Gardner, “but then they get involved in the program and I think they really benefit and enjoy it. It’s a whole lot of supports that surround these young girls.”

In the future, the team’s hope is to expand the program from their current four participants, to somewhere between 8-12.

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