Sexual Abuse a Salient Predictor of Recidivism for Juvenile Females, Not Males

Sexual Abuse a Salient Predictor of Recidivism for Juvenile Females, Not Males

lhbA history of sexual abuse was a salient predictor of recidivism for young female offenders, but not for young male offenders. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article| Law and Human Behavior | 2014, Vol. 38, No. 4, 305-314

Gender Differences in Recidivism Rates for Juvenile Justice Youth: The Impact of Sexual Abuse


Selby M. Conrad, The Miriam Hospital, Providence, Rhode Island and Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center, Providence, Rhode Island
Marina Tolou-Shams, Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center, Providence, Rhode Island and The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University
Christie J. Rizzo, Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center, Providence, Rhode Island and The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University
Nicole Placella, Rhode Island Hospital, Providence, Rhode Island
Larry K. Brown, Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center, Providence, Rhode Island and The Warren Alpert Medical School of
Brown University


Young female offenders represent a growing number of young offenders. Studies have shown that youth in the juvenile justice system, particularly young females, report higher rates of lifetime sexual abuse than their nonoffending peers. The aim of this study was to examine gender differences in risk factors for recidivism, including a history of sexual abuse, among a juvenile court clinic sample. Findings suggest that, even after accounting for previously identified risk factors for recidivism such as prior legal involvement and conduct problems, a history of sexual abuse is the most salient predictor of recidivism for young female offenders, but not for males. The development of gender-responsive interventions to reduce juvenile recidivism and continued legal involvement into adulthood may be warranted.


juvenile justice, recidivism, gender differences, sexual abuse

Summary of the Research

The authors conducted a retrospective chart review of 402 juvenile offenders, ages 11–17, who received a court-ordered forensic mental health evaluation at a Juvenile Court Clinic in the Northeast between 2006 and 2008. Files were coded for demographic and clinical variables, such as age, gender, race or ethnicity, psychiatric diagnosis, history of substance use, and history of child sexual abuse. In addition, information on legal history was coded for each juvenile, as were the results of various standardized measures of psychological functioning and symptomatology.

“The goal of the present study [was] to examine gender specific predictors of juvenile recidivism in a sample of [court-involved, nonincarcerated] juveniles court-ordered for forensic mental health evaluation” (p. 306).

“Of the 402 juveniles included in this study, the majority were male (240 males, 162 females) with an average age of 14.80 (SD 1.6) years. Most juveniles identified their race as White (60%) with the remainder identifying as African American (6%), Hispanic/Latino (18%), and Other (e.g., Asian Pacific Islander, Native American; 3%); 7% of juveniles were missing race and ethnicity data” (p. 308).

Sixty percent (n = 244) of juveniles reported some history of substance use (e.g., marijuana use, alcohol use, or other substance use). History of marijuana use was reported by 57% (n = 213) of juveniles; alcohol was reported by 52% (n = 182) and 15% (n = 42) of the sample reported history of other drug use (e.g., ecstasy, LSD, and cocaine). Males and females reported similar rates of marijuana use (60% of males and 54% of females), alcohol use (52% of males and 52% of females) and other drug use (15% of males and 17% of females)” (p. 308).

“Seventy-one percent (n = 288) were first-time offenders at the time of their court-ordered evaluation. Of the entire sample 18% (n = 71) of juveniles had a prior status offenses (range of 1–4 prior status offenses) and 11% (n = 43) of the sample had prior criminal offenses (range of 1–4 prior criminal offenses; offenders could have one petition filed with multiple charges or offenses). Girls had higher rates of status offenses (21% of females vs. 18% of males) but lower rates of past criminal offenses (12% of females vs. 17% of males)” (p. 308).

Eighty-three percent (n = 337) of juveniles evaluated were given a primary Axis I diagnosis with the most common diagnoses being Oppositional Defiant Disorder (23%); mood disorders (15%); anxiety disorders (11%), and Conduct Disorder (10%). “Approximately 68% (n = 249) of the total sample were diagnosed with externalizing disorders as their primary diagnosis resulting from the juvenile court clinic, which included a similar proportion of males and females. Additionally, 3% of the total samples were diagnosed with PTSD. Rates of PTSD diagnosis were higher in females. The majority of juveniles (61%) reported prior mental health treatment, 14% reported at least one prior psychiatric hospitalization and 37% reported a history of psychotropic medication” (p. 308).

Sixty-six percent (n = 263) of the evaluations included information about presence or absence of past child sexual abuse (CSA). “In the evaluations that included this information, 14% (n = 37) of juveniles (or caregivers) reported that the juvenile had a CSA history. A higher proportion of girls and/or their caregivers reported a history of CSA (23% of girls vs. 8% of boys). Additionally, 75% (n = 263) reported experiencing any type of trauma (e.g., witness to violence, loss, and abuse). General trauma exposure was not found to be associated with recidivism in the full sample or separately for boys or girls” (p. 309).

“Over the 12 month follow-up period, 28% of juveniles were classified as recidivists (n = 114). Males in the sample had higher rates of recidivism (32%) than girls (22%). Recidivists did not differ from nonrecidivists on age and race/ethnicity or offense type (i.e., status vs. criminal offender). Recidivists were, however, more likely to have an externalizing disorder and prior status offense than non-recidivists” (p. 309).

“Male recidivists were more likely to report lifetime substance use and have a history of past offense than male nonrecidivists. Female recidivists reported higher rates of past CSA than female nonrecidivists” (p. 309).

Logistic regression analyses indicated that 12-month recidivism was significantly associated with being diagnosed with an externalizing disorder. In addition, the interaction between history of child sexual abuse and gender was also a significant predictor of 12-month recidivism: “for males a history of sexual abuse did not differentiate rate of 12 month recidivism whereas for girls, those who had a history of sexual abuse had five times greater odds of recidivating than their nonabused female counterparts” (p. 309).

Translating Research into Practice

These findings “contribute to existing literature that suggests a history of CSA may uniquely contribute to girls’ risk for legal involvement and that CSA may be a notable precedent for female criminal activity…Even after accounting for known risk factors for recidivism (e.g., prior offense history), CSA remains a unique significant predictor of recidivism for young female, but not male, juvenile offenders with identified psychiatric concerns” (p. 310).

“Behaviors that are correlated with CSA history among girls (e.g., elopement, truancy, and aggressive or assaultive) are also those behaviors that typically result in their legal involvement (the majority being status offenses). Thus, relative to boys, there may be something distinct about girls’ behavioral symptom expression of having a CSA history that increases their risk for legal involvement” (p. 311).

“Girls may also have a different experience of CSA than boys that could impact their behavioral and psychiatric presentation. Girls are more likely to be chronically victimized, to be victim to more severe acts of sexual abuse and at an earlier age than boys; factors that are also associated with poorer psychiatric and behavioral (e.g., substance use) outcomes. Traumatic experiences, and the subsequent symptom expression, could be contributing to an increase in behaviors that are associated with legal involvement for girls (e.g., aggression, truancy, and substance use). Thus, girls already involved in the justice system with CSA histories may be placed at greater risk for additional legal involvement by virtue of the behaviors associated with untreated trauma symptoms. In particular, delinquent girls with a trauma (including sexual abuse) history are at increased risk for developing depression relative to their male delinquent counterparts, which could perhaps be attributed to some of these aforementioned abuse characteristics that differ by gender (p. 311).

This study provides preliminary data related to gender differences in recidivism risk for court-involved nonincarcerated youth with identified mental health concerns. Adolescents who continue to commit crimes once involved in the justice system are at increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes including repeat incarceration, involvement in the adult criminal justice system, substance use, high risk sexual behavior, and poor academic achievement. Thus, understanding the risk factors associated with recidivism is an important step in identifying youth who may be in need of additional support or specific intervention to reduce the risk of continued system involvement. While most Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) Assessments, aimed at reducing further delinquency, are for use with both genders and they do not include abuse history as a factor for possible intervention point for risk reduction…Thus, [these] data add to the growing body of literature that suggests that gender-responsive supports and interventions may be warranted” (p. 312).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“This study represents an initial, but important, exploration of the association between recidivism and CSA. Future studies may wish to explore types of abuse (e.g., physical, emotional, and witness to violence) and frequency and intensity of abuse on risk for recidivism. Additionally, studies focused on larger and more general samples of court involved nonincarcerated youth could provide additional information, particularly with respect to the development of PTSD and it is association with recidivism. While male juvenile offenders may need additional intervention surrounding criminal attitudes and impulsive behavior, young female offenders with an identified history of CSA may need trauma-informed treatment and support to deter continued criminal behavior” (p. 312).

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