Girls represent a growing share of the juvenile justice population. Despite recent reforms that have resulted in lower arrest rates for boys, arrest rates for girls have remained the same, or gotten worse. And the girls who are sent into the system are disproportionately girls of color and/or LGBT/gender non-conforming.
In most cases, the offenses that girls commit do not present risks to public safety. Instead, they often reflect trauma that they have experienced. Girls in the juvenile justice have physical and mental health needs that most often go unaddressed by a punitive system that exacerbates their symptoms.
Violence against girls is a crisis of national proportions that cuts across every divide of race, class, and ethnicity; and it is a painfully American tale. And in a perverse twist of justice, many girls who experience sexual abuse are routed into the juvenile justice system because of the violence they’ve experienced. Indeed, sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.
Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests. More harmful still is the significant risk that the punitive environment will re-trigger girls’ traumatic symptoms or subject them to new incidents of victimization, which can exponentially compound the profound harms inflicted by the original abuse. — From our report, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story.
Sex Trafficking of Girls
The path of many survivors of sex trafficking is a particularly egregious illustration of the sexual abuse to prison pipeline: often, they’re arrested on prostitution and related charges—punished as perpetrators, rather than served and supported as survivors of violence and rape for profit.
Girls who are bought and sold are the victims, not the perpetrators, of the crime of sex trafficking. Public agencies must recognize key indicators of victimization and how to work with child survivors of sex trafficking. Critical to this effort is an informed understanding of the connection between girls’ background of violence, abuse, or other trauma and a particular vulnerability to domestic sex trafficking, as well as the profound and complex effects of the trauma of being trafficked itself.
Contact with the Juvenile Justice System for Status Offenses and Other Minor Violations
Evidence suggests that a significant cause of girls’ rates of arrest and detention is aggressive enforcement of non-serious offenses that are rooted in the experience of abuse and trauma. The leading cause of arrest for girls are minor offenses such as misdemeanors, status offenses, outstanding warrants, and technical violations; and the decision to arrest and detain girls in these cases is often based in part on the perception of girls’ having violated conventional norms and stereotypes of feminine behavior, even when that behavior is caused by trauma.
Improving Approaches to Girls in the System
We must do better to support girls who have survived gender-based violence and other forms of trauma. The juvenile justice system can begin by listening to girls, identifying the root causes of the behavior at issue, and aiming to heal and support them, rather than to punish or “protect” girls by sending them deeper into the system. Listen to girls from across the country discuss their reflections on their involvement in the juvenile justice system here.