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Volume 6, Issue 1 • Spring 2017

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Facility Operations and Juvenile Recidivism

Neighborhood Risks and Resources Correlated With Successful
Reentry of Youth Returning from Massachusetts Detention Centers

Girls Leaving Detention: Perceptions of Transition to Home After

An Innovative Use of Conjoint Analysis to Understand
Decision-Making by Juvenile Probation Officers

“I’d Prefer an Applicant Who Doesn’t Have a Delinquency History”:
Delinquents in the Labor Market

Gender Comparisons in the Processes and Outcomes of Functional
Family Therapy

Achieving Juvenile Justice Reforms Through Decision-Making Structures: The Case of Georgia

The Benefits of Community and Juvenile Justice Involvement in
Organizational Research

Girls Leaving Detention: Perceptions of Transition to Home After Incarceration

Judith W. Herrman, School of Nursing, University of Delaware; Joni Silverstein Sexton, Independent Consultant.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Judith W. Herrman, School of Nursing, University of Delaware, McDowell Hall, 25 North College Avenue, Newark, DE 19716. E-mail:

Keywords: transition to home, girls, juvenile detention, perceptions


Young women exiting juvenile justice agencies may confront myriad challenges when returning to their home. Transition to home skills learned and goals established during detention may be difficult to maintain in a home environment. Support persons, resources, and personal strengths may foster a successful transition to home. These qualities, and the perceptions of young women in juvenile detention, are not known for the population of young women exiting a local juvenile justice facility. This qualitative research study determined girls’ perceptions of the challenges, supports, resources, and skills that will support their success. Four focus groups of 28 young women provided rich data about their perceptions of the supports and challenges that may confront them on discharge from a detention facility. Individual, family, and community supports and challenges were identified in the study data and template analysis; using the focus group question guide allowed for the extrapolation of the most significant factors associated with successful transition to home or recidivism and return to detention. Thematic analysis determined success and challenge themes as they emerged during data analysis. Key support themes included: Keeping busy with positive activities, Having a support person or network, Setting goals for yourself, and Developing and maintaining a positive self-image. Challenge themes addressed: Feeling depressed and other behavioral issues, Having an unstable family, Living in an unstable community, and Succumbing to peer pressure. Exemplar quotes provide the foundation for future recommendations. These findings may inform policies and programming designed to foster transition to home success in young women exiting juvenile detention.


The release of youth from juvenile detention centers to the community and facilitation of their successful transition to home represent some of the most significant challenges confronting the juvenile justice system. About 100,000 youth are released from incarceration each year (Abrams, Mizel, Nguyen, & Shlonsky, 2014), and many recidivate in the first year after release (Abrams, Shannon, & Sangalang, 2008; Trulson, Marquart, Mullings, & Caeti, 2005). More young women are being incarcerated than ever before, making gender-specific, evidence-based practices to foster the healthy rehabilitation of young women imperative (Cooney, Small, & O’Connor, 2008; Goodkind, 2005; Hubbard & Matthews, 2008; Watson & Edelman, 2012). Gender-specific services, or those tailored to the unique needs of women, include such components as female-oriented reproductive and general health care; female hygiene resources; female supervisors and counselors; and recognition of those issues that require increased attention with girls, including specialized mental health resources, family counseling, and trauma-informed services (Goodkind, 2005; Schaffner, 2006). These resources are warranted, because young women transitioning from incarceration to the community may encounter unique circumstances, including pregnancy and parenting, sexual abuse and trauma, family or interpersonal conflicts, and mental health issues (Cooney et al., 2008; Fields & Abrams, 2010; Schaffner, 2006).

Gender-specific service initiatives may be augmented with the knowledge of the challenges and supports perceived by young women to decrease recidivism, thereby enhancing the success of young women discharged from juvenile detention facilities. Yet few studies capture these perspectives. Much of the available research pertains to factors predisposing young people to recidivism, future confrontations with the justice system after release from incarceration, or programs designed to prevent recidivism, rather than youth perceptions of their reentry needs (Abrams, 2010, 2014; Abrams & Snyder, 2010; Abrams et al., 2008, 2014; Fields & Abrams, 2010). The current study fills this gap in the literature by exploring the insights of young women who are or who have recently been incarcerated as they plan for their transition to home. These perceptions may inform policies and programs designed to support successful re-entry.

Review of the Literature

It is estimated that between 50% to 85% of youth detained in out-of-home settings are rearrested and detained again, many related to technical issues of probation or status offenses (Nelson, Jolivette, Leone, & Mathur, 2010; Shepherd, Green, & Omobien, 2005; Trulson et al., 2005). The reasons behind this high rate of rearrests are thought to include mental health disorders that are unaddressed in the community, low levels of cognitive or self-care functioning, lack of vocational training to ensure re-entry to the workforce, substance abuse, and unaddressed learning disabilities that challenge re-entry to school. In addition, returning to an environment that does not foster abidance to laws and policies and a lack of safety-net services or communication with schools and/or community agencies poses a challenge. Furthermore, other circumstances that contribute to the high rate of recidivism include a shorter length of incarceration, which results in less time to make a significant difference in behaviors; a lack of transition from juvenile justice to child welfare systems; and poor quality of social services received during incarceration to foster success when transitioning (Abrams & Snyder, 2010; Bullis & Yovanoff, 2002; Calley, 2012; Clark & Unruh, 2010; Fields & Abrams, 2010; Gagnon & Barber, 2010; Mathur & Schoenfeld, 2010; Nelson et al., 2010; Shepherd et al., 2005). In addition to a return to incarceration, the other sequelae must be appreciated, including continued criminal and violent behaviors, lack of a productive workforce, financial dependency on public subsidies, entry into the adult justice system, and the ongoing financial burdens incurred by the court and prison systems (Chauhan & Reppucci, 2009; Colman, Mitchell-Herzfeld, Kim, & Shady, 2010; Fields & Abrams, 2010).

Several factors are associated with positive transition of youth to the community and reentry to society following incarceration. These include school engagement, active employment in a self-sustaining job, a personal sense of determination, family support, and safe and stable housing (Abrams & Snyder, 2010; Bullis & Yovanoff, 2002; Fields and Abrams, 2010; Shepherd et al., 2005). In addition, work and education re-entry programs, mentoring and adult role models, and social services, including mental health care, were identified as vital for successful transition to the community (Abrams, 2014; Abrams et al., 2008; Anthony et al., 2010; Bullis & Yovanoff, 2002; Ruffolo, Sarri, & Goodkind, 2004; Schaffner, 2006).

Theoretical Framework

This research is based on Sanford’s Challenge and Support Theory. The premise of this theory is that individuals who have a balance of supports and challenges will grow and flourish. Supports and challenges may come from the individual themselves, their family, or their community, including friends, neighborhood, or societal influences. Under the dictums of this theory, individuals who receive too many supports and too few challenges become comfortable and complacent and are not stimulated toward growth and change; too many challenges confronting an individual may result in anxiety, defeatism, withdrawal, and lack of success (Sanford, 1966).

Sanford’s theory clearly applies as we explore young women’s perceptions of the individual, family, and community supports and challenges they face as they transition to home after their incarceration. This theory also has great meaning for potential interventions by focusing on each individual’s potential for growth and his or her ability to be supported by family and community, and in reducing and dealing with the social challenges confronted by individuals, families, and communities in environments characterized by poverty, disadvantage, and crisis.


Participants, Recruitment and Setting

This descriptive, qualitative study was designed to gather young women’s perceptions about transitioning to home after incarceration. Focus groups presented rich perspectives about these variables. Permission to conduct focus groups at the facility and approval by the academic Institutional Review Board, including review by a prison advocate, was obtained. A recruitment flyer informed the young women of the study, and the assent/consent and permission forms were given to the activities coordinator, who obtained permission from the young women’s parents or guardians.

This study was conducted at a Level-IV locked residential juvenile-detention facility for girls in a mid-Atlantic state. This agency offers school instruction, vocational and hobby training, special programming, mental health services, and supportive care for up to 12 girls at a time. The young women at the facility are generally ages 12 to 18; the young women who turn 18 during their detention may finish out their sentence in the juvenile facility. According to agency personnel, most of the residents had repeated histories with Family Court for status offenses, including running away, violating probation, or simple assault. Others incurred weapons, drugs, or other charges. The facility provided a quiet, private program room in which to conduct the focus groups.

The purposive, convenience sample represented the population of young women who are detained in a juvenile justice setting. The four focus groups included a total of 28 young women, ranging from ages 13 to 20, with a mean age of 16.6. Nineteen women reported their race black, 7 white, and 2 of mixed racial background; the question on ethnicity yielded 25 of Caucasian and 3 of Hispanic origin. Three focus groups were conducted with residents of the detention facility, and another was held with 5 young women participating in a reunion meeting 6 months after their discharge from the facility. While the focus groups with current residents presented the perspectives of a future release from detention, the reunion group shared their thoughts and experiences during the early period after release. The focus groups took place over 8 months to accommodate for the typical 3-month duration of stay and ensure that new subjects were available for participation.

Focus Group Guide and Protocol

The focus group guide was designed to measure the study variables of personal strength, supports, resources, and challenges young women in the juvenile justice system confront as they transition to home. The original focus group interview guide was based on the literature review, the challenges and supports theoretical framework (Sanford, 1966), and expertise on issues related to young women in detention. Questions included lessons learned while in detention, people who may prove to assist or hinder their success in the transition to home, goals for re-entry, thoughts on potential return to detention, and decision-making skills that may contribute to their success or difficulty in returning to their home environment. The original focus group interview guide was field tested with 3 young women from another youth program. The field-test participants recommended some changes in wording and length of the instrument. The interview guide was then shortened, with questions clustered around key areas.

Focus groups, led by the authors of this study, were scheduled during the evening activities time and—for the lone group of young women who were recently released—during their reunion meeting. Young women 18 and older completed the consent form, while those ages 12 to 17 completed the assent form. The focus group leaders introduced themselves and reviewed the purpose of the study and basic ground rules of the focus groups. The young women received small gift incentives, and the interviews ranged from 45 to 80 minutes, with a mean of 65 minutes.

Data Management and Analysis

The focus groups were audiotaped, transcribed verbatim, and checked for accuracy by the investigators. Observational notes were transcribed and merged with transcripts to ensure that this process was capturing the intentions and rich shared meanings of the participants. Data were analyzed for themes, as guided by the theoretical framework, in an iterative process. Data were coded, as they reflected selected themes and exemplar quotes identified as they represented key themes. These emergent themes were member checked with young women at the detention setting to ensure authenticity of findings and interpretations. The authors compared notes, transcriptions, themes, and the paper audit trail to ensure credibility and transferability of the interpretations.


Template analysis revealed selected perceptions of individual, family, and community factors associated with transition to home following detention. These, in turn, were categorized according to the young women’s perceptions of these factors as supports and challenges. First, the individual, family and community supports will be addressed.


Individual. The young women identified several support factors that drew upon their personal strengths, goals, and potential. One aspect was their need to focus on themselves and their own needs, being careful to avoid distraction by the behavior or actions of others, especially those with whom they had previously been associated. They spoke of the need to “learn from the past,” “to stay focused,” and be a leader instead of a follower.” One participant said, “it’s not my environment or my friends . . . it’s me.” The situation that led up to detention was perceived as a “wake-up call,” wherein one young woman reported, “It made me realize that I have to grow up” and another stated, “I chose not to listen before, now I need to listen.” The young women were quick to point out that they needed to learn to have the personal control to manage their anger and remain drug free, use healthy coping mechanisms, maintain a positive mindset, and respect themselves.

The young women articulated their need to address bad habits, focus on future goals, and relearn how to function with a clear mind and a sense of purpose: “we learned how to get our life in order.” One young women shared the insight: “we have a better understanding of our actions . . . positive behaviors can become habits.” Methods to achieve these positive behavior changes included writing in journals, “keeping busy,” having a structured day filled with activities, “walking away” from confrontation, and relying on lessons learned during detention to inform future behavior. Controlling anger, healthy communication, and delaying gratification were additional lessons cited by this sample. Learning to get along with others in the group setting was identified as a means to learn important skills, which would benefit them in their post-detention period, including learning to appreciate “different personalities . . . different lifestyles . . . we got it all here.” One woman stated: “Here, we take off our masks and see who we really are . . . my purpose of being here is to blossom into something beautiful.”

Family. Young mothers mentioned their children and the need to be good parents as key motivators in their quest to be successful in the community. Many of the young women were pregnant or were mothers, and they spoke of their need to pursue their goals to provide financially for their children. Mothers also discussed their need to engage in more prosocial behaviors: “My child . . . I be thinking of her before I start swinging . . . she’s the reason I calmed down,” and “I’m different now. I have to do it because of him, not myself.”

Young women identified key family members and others close to them who offered support and inspiration as they endeavored to be successful in their lives. The young women indicated that the staff at the agency were “like family” and gave them high levels of support as they learned important lessons and sought out guidance. One young woman said, “they motivate you and give you a lot of encouragement . . . encourage you that you can do it.”

Members of our sample indicated that women served key roles in their lives. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters were most often cited as both positive resources and role models. Some of the young women stated, “I wanna show my mom that I’m sorry for putting her through . . . I wanna show her I can be who I know I can be . . . I just wanna gain all that love back,” and “My mom can’t help me make good decisions . . . she can tell me but she can’t help me. It’s me. Only thing she can do is support me and tell me what’s right or wrong.”

Less often noted were the men in the lives of these young women, only a few naming fathers, boyfriends, or husbands as positive forces in their lives (one participant in the reunion group was married). “Clean friends” and peers were also mentioned, but the participants were quick to note that it was difficult to discern between positive friends and those friends who posed challenges to their success upon leaving detention. The sample members noted that their positive behaviors “might help change” the behaviors of their friends; some mentioned the power of positive peer pressure, with one stating, “I need someone my age, pushing me forward.”

Community. The community resources that fostered the attainment of goals and helped participants to “stay busy” were noted. School and the need for a high school diploma to be successful were most often cited as keys to future success. One woman said, “we NEED an education . . . we better get an education!” The young women also discussed the challenges of going back to school and the assets of alternative education programs from which to receive their diplomas. They relayed the importance of high school graduation and the role that it served in allowing them to pursue a secondary education, join the military, become self-sustaining, or avoid negative pressures. Although money was discussed, their motivation for an education appeared to lie more in the ability for education to transform their lives and set them on a path of achievement. School also offered other diversional activities, such as cheerleading, sports, clubs, and organized activities, like yoga and Zumba, which were correlated with staying busy and focused on constructive experiences. As the young women said, “I’m gonna be too busy to do anything bad” and “doing positive things you find positive friends.”

The ability of the community to offer work training, transportation, and meaningful jobs was also cited. The young women echoed each other as they described their need to work and to feel good about their jobs; the role working played in keeping them busy and out of trouble; and the ability for work to help them earn legitimate funds to support themselves and, in some cases, their children. They spoke of the money needed to “have their own space” and to live independently. Following 3 to 6 months of communal living, the girls expressed a desire for privacy, ownership, and autonomy. They noted that education and work would enable them to have this space, and they discussed the importance of personal ownership and self-sustainability.

Two women cited their faith, religion, church, or spirituality as sources of support. One woman attending the reunion focus group discussed the lessons she learned by reading the Bible and attending services, and how that supported her successes after leaving detention: “I am very into Christ now, very into God . . . with God I have a partner and a life-long friend.” Another replied, “you can pray to God but you always have a consequence for what you did. You just gotta learn from it.”


The individual, family, and community domains gave a context for viewing the challenges associated with transition to home following detention. The challenges in each domain are presented here.

Individual. The young women were quick to relay the personal traits that contributed to their incarceration and those that would challenge their success transitioning to home. Most often mentioned was the use of and addiction to drugs, which clouded their judgment, encouraged other illicit behaviors, attracted other negative forces in their lives, and fostered criminal behavior. Use of substances including marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs were noted, with the sample members adding, smoking, it changes your whole demeanor,” “I get high and go to the mall and I fight a lot,” and “all we did was get high and run away.”

The women stated that going home to the same friends and neighborhoods would require the utmost in personal strength and offer significant temptation as they struggled to achieve success. The sample noted that dealing with mental health issues, such as depression, anger, and other emotions, and substance use would require a high level of self-respect, will power, and self-control. They discussed the need to control fighting behaviors, say no to friends engaging in negative thoughts and behaviors, deal with potential peer pressure, avoid interpersonal conflict, and break “old habits” to achieve their goals. Having the personal strength to deal with potentially inevitable issues, such as unemployment, the debt incurred because of the incarceration, the challenges of staying in school, and a current pregnancy and childbearing were cited as the young women spoke of going home and being successful. Learning to manage emotions, deal with issues of pride and ego, communicate assertively rather than aggressively, and respect authority and elders were all important, albeit challenging, aspects of their lives after detention. Participants recalled: “I was rude. . . . I felt like the world owed me everything,” “I didn’t use my brain and think about the consequences,” and “I had an ‘I don’t care’ attitude.”

Several of the girls noted that being a minor and lacking many options as far as work and living situations posed problems for them. Others acknowledged that turning or being 18 meant that any continued criminal activity would be addressed in adult courts, offering a whole new layer of complexity, sanctions, and rigor. Pregnancy added complexity to already stressed lives. Young mothers shared their concerns: “I mean it’s different when you get pregnant, I mean, it’s hard,” “I wish I waited,” and “I can’t do things now that I have my daughter.”

Family. The discussions related to the challenges offered by family members were often the most intense and passionate. Young women discussed homes characterized by abuse, domestic violence, and substance abuse and recognized the inability for families to offer the support needed during their adolescent years. Participants declared, “my home is not one to go home to” and “we have a crazy family.” They talked about violence in their homes, lack of adequate financial resources, use of drugs, and unstable relationships as contributing to their personal behavior, and they discussed the dearth of role models within their home environments. Mothers, fathers, and siblings were cited in these lists of negative forces within their family. One woman said, “I am always worried about my house, they need to be worried about how they live.” Another added, “sometimes you need to let go of the family you love to make it in life. . . . You can’t help people who don’t want help.” Others discussed a general disorganization or lack of structure in their home that did not reinforce succeeding at school, positive behaviors, or staying away from drugs and violence.

Several young women discussed that their “friendship” with their mothers, either due to parenting style or closeness in age, made discipline and limit-setting difficult. One participant stated, “my mom wasn’t there for me . . . she was more a friend than a mom.” Participants often cited the negative influences of their boyfriends. Although they recognized their own role in criminal behavior, most saw boyfriends as instigators of crime, fighting, and drug use. Few were able to cite a positive intimate relationship that would support their transition to home, although the married woman considered her husband an asset as she strived to be successful at home.

Community. Neighborhood poverty, crime, and drug use were cited as significant challenges as the young women contemplated transition to home. Negative influences of friends and their instigation or perpetuation of fighting, drug use, smoking, violence, and crime were frequently mentioned and posed challenges to the young women. One participant remarked, “I don’t think about the consequences when I am doing something, I just do it. You do what your friends do.” Another added, “you can have friends, but you gotta figure out which ones are your good friends and which are your bad friends.” The sample members discussed their concerns that friends they had prior to incarceration may tempt them back to negative behaviors out of resentment for the young women’s new positive behaviors and may threaten to disavow them as a way to coerce them to return to negative behaviors. Some sample members said that negative friends would not accept their new positive behaviors and would meet their new identities with scorn and ridicule. One participant noted, “they are negative, they’re gonna be hating our positive stuff and not congratulating us on our program . . . they’ll be hating it.” Another sample member said, “Peer pressure is the greatest challenge . . . not everybody else is controlling their anger.” They spoke of the dilemma of wanting to have friends but needing to ensure that they did not slip back and take on the behaviors that resulted in their incarceration. One woman stated, “When people bring you down, it’s because they are down and they need someone else with them.” The participants noted the need to change their peer group following transition to home in order to ensure transition success: “Sometimes we gotta change up people.” These observations reflected the need for personal improvement, but participants expressed concern about their ability to bring about such life changes.

The participants spoke of “drug infested neighborhoods and “bad environments” in which they were “trapped” and unable to leave. One participant revealed, “I can’t change where I live,” reinforcing the marginalization by teens who do not have housing options. In contrast, adults may have had some level of choice about their residence. The sample realized the importance of education, and the prospect of impoverished communities lacking educational resources, reinforcing that “nowadays, without an education, you ain’t going nowhere . . . so we need good schools and we better take education serious or be on the streets where you got nothing.”


In this discussion, thematic analysis allowed for the extraction of themes representing the supports and challenges perceived by the young women related to their transition to home after detention. The themes synthesize the individual, family, and community domains and focus on the major supports and challenges as they emerged from the data. These themes were compared and contrasted with the literature to create the foundation for best practices and program implications.

Support Themes

The most prevalent and resounding support theme from the young women was Keeping Busy with Positive Activities. One woman echoed her grandmother’s advice: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” The sample reinforced the need for activities that are meaningful, goal driven, and rewarded. The sample members emphasized that “I need a job to keep me out of trouble,” and “I need something planned for me every day.” Similarly, Anthony and colleagues (2010) discussed the need for immediate reengagement in school or work, with the least amount of disruption, to ensure success in community reentry.

Our sample cited the people in their lives who may support their success, leading to the second theme: Having a Support Person or Network. Sample members stated, “My family is there for me . . . all those friends that wanted me to do all that stuff didn’t come visit me at all,” “My mom—she’ll do anything for me,” and “I need to stay focused . . . I have my daughter to think of.” Although these networks may offer the supports needed to balance out the challenges encountered during re-entry, the young women in our sample did not say they believed that other adults outside their family served as key support persons following their incarceration. Notably omitted were teachers, clergy, youth advocates, role models, or other adults in their community who would help them post detention.

Several researchers have explored the role of social and family networks in transition to home. Adult mentoring support and positive peer influences of formerly incarcerated youth were noted by Anthony and colleagues (2010) to be key components of successful adaptation to the community. Martinez and Abrams (2013) studied the informal supports, as in peers, extended family members, and individuals in the neighborhood, and conjectured that these forces were critical in reducing rates of recidivism.

Setting Goals for Yourself and Developing and Maintaining a Positive Self-Image were identified as support themes by this sample. The young women named a range of goals: “I’m breaking the chain in my family,” “I’m going in the military, having my own place, and staying out of trouble,” and “I plan on finishing school and walk[ing] down the aisle.” Researchers discussed the need for this individual-based reflection to ensure behavior change, to avoid resorting to old behaviors that led to incarceration, to instill hope, and to have the confidence to reenter the community despite significant obstacles (Abrams & Aquilar, 2005; Anthony et al., 2010). Positive self-images were reflected in a range of statements: “One day you realize you get more respect by just being you” and “We need to not care about our friends and their bad advice . . . that’s where self-esteem comes in . . . you need to make sure you don’t go down with them.” The power of a positive self-concept, which affords the individual the strength to bring about positive personal change, rise above current circumstances, and face significant temptation in her environment, was found by Abrams and Aquilar (2005) to be paramount to transition to success.

Challenge Themes

The first challenge theme, Feeling Depressed and Other Behavioral Issues, was reflected in various statements: “I need to fight my addiction,” “I used to sleep all the time . . . I was just sad,” and “when I get mad . . . I can’t control it.” Researchers have demonstrated that young people in the juvenile justice system, and specifically girls, have complex histories including emotional and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, mental health issues, sexual abuse and trauma, child abuse and maltreatment, consequences of high-risk sexual and other behaviors, and complex family contexts (Calley, 2012; Chamberlain & Moore, 2002; Ruffolo et al. 2004; Yampolskaya & Chuang, 2012). Resources indicated that 65% to 70% of girls who are incarcerated have mental health disorders, with varying percentages of those receiving treatment (Anthony et al., 2010; Yazzie, 2011). These factors were cited as significant challenges by our sample as they identified issues related to managing stress, handling their emotions, and working with others.

Studies also highlighted the environmental and community factors that predispose young people to incarceration including poverty, community disadvantage, family and social network dysfunction, and community violence (Chauhan & Reppucci, 2009; Herrman & Silverstein, 2012; Nelson et al., 2010). These support our identification of challenge themes associated with Having an Unstable Family and Living in an Unstable Community. Study participants said, “I feel like when I go home, I have nothing to go home to” and “Going back to the community is a challenge in itself.” Researchers have substantiated the impact of troubled families on youth attempting to make positive change in their lives following incarceration (Abrams & Aquilar, 2005; Anthony et al., 2010). In fact, Abrams and Snyder (2010) contended that negative social environments with suboptimal schools, social disorganization, little social cohesion, and poor community assets transcend individual strategies for behavior change. Without real community change, individual interventions are rendered ineffective (Abrams & Snyder, 2010).

Finally, Succumbing to Peer Pressure, a key theme in our study, was noted in the literature as representing a powerful influence on community reentry. Participants said, “I want to fit in so much,” “Everybody that I was doing what I was doing with is gone . . . either they are dead or in jail,” and “My friends . . . they all smoke and drink . . . and get in trouble.” In a qualitative study with male youth who faced transition to home after incarceration, Abrams (2014) noted that facing friends and the potential for regression to previous patterns of behavior were the greatest challenges associated with community reentry. Researchers identified the need for teens to differentiate “good” and “bad” friends, or selective involvement with friends to ensure success following incarceration (Abrams, 2014; Abrams & Aquilar, 2005; Martinez & Abrams, 2013). Several resources cited mentoring as an important strategy to promote positive guidance, reinforce character strength in dealing with peer pressure, and offer role modeling of prosocial behaviors (Abrams, 2014; Abrams et al., 2008, 2014).


Best practices related to release to home after incarceration may be informed by the perceptions of women facing this transition. Two states, Illinois and Missouri, developed best practices for detention that have reduced recidivism in their states (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010; Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, 2011). These strategies may be framed within the contexts of the perceptions gleaned in this study. In general, best practices for transition to home begin with a cogent, organized prerelease plan individualized for each young person that is worked on throughout incarceration (Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, 2011). Plans should consider re-enrollment in school, family involvement, identification of employment opportunities and/or extracurricular activities, curfews, and a behavioral contract (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010). Many women in our sample expressed fear about going to a home or family that does not encourage positive behaviors. Therefore, best practices dictate that a transition plan that includes careful selection of a home, whether with the family, other kin, or in foster care, may be key to transition success (Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, 2011). Yet another best practice is assignment of a service coordinator to a young person for his or her entire stay, along with continued contact after release (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010).

Involvement of family members and/or other important adults from the beginning of treatment and throughout the transition to community is also important (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010). Visitation is actively encouraged so that family members, and the relationships between offending youth and their families, may be assessed and recommendations may be made (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010). Focus group participants expressed concerns about the bad influence of family members; there must be a way to remove those adults from the environment or mitigate their ability to serve as negative influences. Best practices dictate that collaboration between departments is important, because families of youth in detention may be involved with various other state agencies or community services (Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, 2011).

Many of the girls in the focus groups expressed concern about their future, especially as it pertained to education and employment. In many instances, they realized that the behaviors that led to their detention might have serious impact on their futures. Missouri’s best practices include the development of academic, pre-vocational, and communication goals and skills to improve the successes of teens post-detention. To foster communication skills, personal interests, and a strong work ethic, learning is conducted in small groups, work experience is encouraged, and community service projects are routine elements of programming (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010). Service projects have helped teens develop empathy and relationship skills (Mathur & Schoenfeld, 2010).

Other strategies to reduce recidivism include placing youth who require detention in smaller facilities near their home and family. Facilities should resemble a home, including carpeting and homelike features. Rather than wearing uniforms or standardized outfits, young people are allowed to dress in their own clothes. The youth are closely supervised and attend daily group and individual treatment sessions to explore the roots of delinquent behavior, future goals, and strategies for success. Youth stay with their peer group and are encouraged to socialize, learn positive behaviors, and deal with interpersonal differences in a positive manner. Isolation or other punishments are avoided (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010). The young women in our study talked about what they must do to be successful. Yet they were understandably unsure of their own level of resilience and ability to surmount obstacles. To address this, before release, youth return home for short-term furloughs. Any problems that arise during these furloughs are dealt with, sometimes leading to longer times in detention, intensive therapy, or plan revision (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010).

Part of the success of the Missouri initiative is attributed to a service coordinator assigned to a young person for his or her entire stay and maintaining contact with the youth after release (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010). Illinois also had success with specialized parole officers for youth who develop a relationship with juvenile offenders at the beginning of their confinement. These parole officers, with other service professionals, create individualized post-detention plans, meet with youth and their support systems, and work closely with others in the community to ensure a seamless transition. Experts in Illinois also recommend a reduction in parole, based on the premise that youth with reduced parole periods demonstrated the ability to attain skills and were less likely to recidivate than those with longer parole periods (Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, 2011). Both best-practice models in Illinois and Missouri dictate that youth should remain under surveillance and receive services for 4 to 6 months after detention (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010; Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, 2011). Research demonstrated that surveillance-only models lead to a high degree of recidivism for technical violations for teens. Ongoing services should include mental health treatment and therapy, vocational training, and connection with appropriate community resources.

Several of the young women in our sample were pregnant or parenting during their detention. Schaffner (2006) conjectured that one-fifth to one-quarter of female detainees are pregnant or parenting at the time of incarceration. Researchers suggest that female juvenile offenders have unique physical and mental health needs related to pregnancy, parenting, and sexual activity (Cooney et al., 2008; Herrman & Waterhouse, 2012). Offering adequate resources for young women is important to ensure their success after release from detention and also may pave the way for more positive outcomes in their children, thereby helping to break the cycles of crime, poverty, and incarceration.


The young women participating in these focus groups represented a single agency in a mid-Atlantic state, so results may not be generalized to other populations. The dynamics of the group and the potential for breach of confidentiality, along with the presence of detention center staff required for groups conducted at the facility, may have made it less likely that these young women would be candid during the focus group, further limiting the findings. Ongoing research with samples of young women from different sites may add further breadth to the findings. States with different policies related to length of incarceration, penalties related to status offenses, and adherence to gender-specific services may add additional value to the perspectives noted in the current study.


The young women identified important challenges and supports when considering their personal transition to home after incarceration. The exploration of the individual, family, and community domains to delineate the supports and challenges for young women endeavoring to transition to home may offer insight as policies and programs are developed to assist them. These young women clearly articulated what they should do to ensure successful re-entry, but some seemed dubious about their ability to confront the challenges imposed by their family and community. Several young women shared inspiring stories of courage, personal goals, and strength, instilling true hope in the interviewers. Others appeared to echo the rhetoric of good behavior and purposeful return to society, while their nonverbal communications expressed their personal ambivalence about their potential for success. As articulated in Sanford’s theory of Supports and Challenges, the right balance of these factors is critical to ensure successful transition to home. Too many challenges or a dearth of supports clearly signal failure in the ability of these young women to meet the expectations of society and of their probation contract. Sanford’s theory offers a lens through which to view the need to carefully inventory supports and challenges experienced when transitioning to home.

Young women confront unique challenges when transitioning from detention facilities to home. A major focus of rehabilitation should explore young women’s perceptions of their personal challenges and supports, assist in anticipating obstacles to successful re-entry, and propose interventions to circumvent roadblocks. Using authentic perceptions of young women as they confront their own release may inform future strategies designed to ease the transition from juvenile justice settings to the community.

About the Authors

Judith W. Herrman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN, is a nurse, educator, and researcher interested in adolescent health, providing a platform for youth voices, and disenfranchised teens. She has published widely and speaks nationally and internationally about youth development, nursing education, adolescent sexual decision-making, and intimate partner violence.

Joni Silverstein Sexton, BS, MA, is the former executive director of the Delaware Girls Initiative. She is currently a consultant for nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Her areas of interest include issues related to girls in juvenile justice, alienation among minority groups, and capacity building techniques for young adults.


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