After all of the interest in our recent post Too Many Women in Prison, let’s take a look at where the female over-incarceration problem often starts—girls in the justice system. While youth arrests are generally declining, the rates for girls in detention have been increasing. And not only are girls finding themselves caught up in the justice system more frequently, but girls in the justice system typically end up there at a younger age than boys and for offenses that are less serious than those of boys.
As for who are the girls in the justice system, make no mistake: the majority of these girls are victims. The statistics are incredibly shocking. According to a Department of Justice-funded study of 100 South Carolina girls in detention, 35 of the girls had witnessed a murder, 44 had been sexually abused by an adult, 50 had been abused physically by a parent or caregiver, 54 had a caregiver who served time in prison, and 69 reported having “consensual” sex with an adult. The federal government has found that up to 90 percent of the girls in the justice system have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. In one study of three major U.S. cities, a stunning 41 percent of the girls entering detention had signs of vaginal injury consistent with having been recently sexually assaulted. Up to a third of the girls in the justice system have already been or are currently pregnant. Eight percent have had positive skin tests for tuberculosis. Thirty percent need glasses but do not have them. There are two inescapable conclusions to draw from these disturbing statistics: (1) our society failed the girls in the justice system long before they got there; and (2) a lot of these girls need help, not punishment.
How do these girls end up in juvenile detention? Often times, girls in the justice system are sent there for the sorts of offenses that suggest they have been victimized, like running away from home, truancy, or prostitution. Yet, by treating the girls as offenders instead of victims, the system punishes instead of looking for the source of the problem. As with mass incarceration generally, there are immense racial disparities with girls in the justice system. In 2013, black girls were 20 percent more likely to be detained than white girls. Native American girls were 50 percent more likely than white girls.
Once the girls are sentenced to a juvenile detention facility, society fails them even further. For starters, the risk of violence, particularly sexual assault, is high in juvenile detention facilities. Data compiled by The Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2012 found that almost 10% of youth in juvenile facilities face sexual assault, more often than not, victimized by the facility staff. Added to that is the fact that there is not proper basic medical treatment or mental health care for these girls, much less the poverty and trauma-related treatment many of the girls need. According to the Girls Health and Justice Institute, less than 2 percent of juvenile justice residential facilities in the United States have even received accreditation for the medical care they provide. What these girls need more than anything is professional treatment, support, compassion and care. What they get instead are abandonment, punishment and isolation.
It is long past time to reconsider our nation’s practice of incarcerating children, especially for non-violent offenses. Girls in the justice system are a particularly vulnerable group that our society is doubly failing by allowing the types of trauma that so often brings them to the system in the first place and then by punishing them for their victimization.