Girls Justice Day! Why Now is the Time to Act for Justice-Involved Girls
Authors: Maheen Kaleem, Esq. Staff Attorney, Rights4Girls and Jeree Thomas, Esq. Policy Director with the Campaign for Youth Justice
October marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It also marks Youth Justice Action Month. As we spend this month focusing on the necessity to protect vulnerable women and girls from abuse, we must not forget our girls behind bars.
In January of 2016, Latesha Clay was sentenced to nine years in prison for armed robbery. Latesha is 15 years old. The “victims” in the case were two adult men who had responded to an online ad for sex with a teenager on Backpage.com, a website that traffickers use to sell sex with children. When two men, at least one of whom had a history of inappropriate involvement with minors, arrived at the hotel to engage in sexual acts with 15 year-old Latesha, two individuals came out of the bathroom and threatened the buyers to give them more money. Latesha was not holding the gun, nor was she aware that the robbery was going to take place.
Under federal law, any individual who solicits a sexual act with a minor in exchange for any material good is guilty of human trafficking, and any child who exchanges sex with an adult for anything of value is a victim. Those who facilitate the sale of teens for sex on websites like Backpage.com are also guilty of human trafficking. Despite the fact that Latesha is only fifteen, that her adult “boyfriend” convinced her her to post the ad, that she knew nothing of the robbery, and that at least two adult men exchanged money in order to commit acts of sexual abuse against her, she was deemed the perpetrator in this case, and her buyers, the “victims.” What’s worse—Latesha was charged and sentenced as an adult, and must serve her nine year sentence in adult prison.
What We Know About Girls in the Juvenile & Adult Criminal Justice Systems
This summer, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) released No Place for Youth: Girls in the Adult Justice System. The report summarized data and research on girls in the adult criminal justice system and includes a new survey conducted by NIC and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) of members from the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA).
Despite the absence of sufficient data and research on girls in adult facilities, the little information we do have is cause for concern. According to the NIC/ NCCD survey, only 40.9% of correctional administrators responded that that they could safely serve and house youth, while 42.9% marked that they did not agree when asked if they had assessment tools to appropriately identify the specific needs of girls in adult facilities, let alone age and gender-appropriate programming for children in their care. Girls tried and sentenced as adults confront a system that was not designed to meet their developmental, social, mental health, or safety needs. Furthermore, girls in the adult system are denied the opportunities for rehabilitation that the juvenile justice system is expressly designed to provide.
Unfortunately, the neglect of justice-involved girls is not limited to the adult system. Girls in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems are more likely to have experienced past physical and sexual abuse, trauma, and mental health challenges. In fact, the behavior that results in girls is often related to trying to escape, survive, or cope with extensive abuse. These drivers disproportionately result in the detention and commitment of girls of color, LBTQ girls, and girls who are gender non-conforming. In the most extreme circumstances, girls are actually criminalized because of their victimization.
The pathways that gendered violence creates for girls into the justice system were highlighted a 2015 report by Rights4Girls, The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women entitled, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story. According to the report, across the country, girls in the juvenile justice system had extremely high rates of sexual violence, sexual abuse, and family violence. In South Carolina, 81% of girls reported experiencing sexual violence, and in Oregon 76% reported sexual abuse. In Florida, 84% of girls reported being victims of family violence. The report also emphasized the lack of understanding, data, and appropriate responses to the unique needs of girls.
The Abuse to Prison Pipeline is the result not only of the high prevalence of physical and sexual abuse among girls, particularly marginalized girls, but also our inability to appropriately respond to girls’ behaviors when they are a direct result of the trauma they have endured. A recent report by Francine Sherman, Unintended Consequences: The Collateral Consequences of Mandatory DV Laws, highlights the increase in girls being charged with simple assault for instances of intra-familial violence. Instead of providing families with appropriate interventions, children who are often victims of domestic abuse are instead criminalized.
Subjecting girls to the Abuse to Prison Pipeline is not the way to help girls grow, mature, and rehabilitate to meet their incredible potential. Too often, our most traumatized and victimized girls end up behind bars when they should be met with services. In Ohio, Bresha Meadows currently sits in juvenile detention facing a charge for shooting her father in an effort to protect her mother and herself from domestic violence. Imagine if her family had received the appropriate interventions so that Bresha and her mother were safe from the domestic abuse they endured for years.
In honor of Bresha, Latesha, and the countless girls behind bars around the country, we encourage families, advocates, and those who work in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system to take action on today, Girls Justice Day. Tweet, write, and/or meet with members of Congress and tell them to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) by voting in favor of H.R. 5963. The bill passed the House on September 22nd and is now in the Senate. The reauthorized bill includes important protections for girls including:
- Incentives for states to create prevention programming for girls at-risk of entering the juvenile justice system
- Screening girls in the juvenile justice system for child sex trafficking and diverting them towards community-based programming wherever possible
- Ending the use of unnecessary restraints on pregnant and post-partum girls
Encouraging states to limit use of the Valid Court Order exception, which has led to the disproportionate detention of girls who commit non-violent offenses
Ensuring that state juvenile justice advisory groups involve individuals with specific expertise in addressing the needs of girls
In addition, encourage your state and local policymakers and system administrators to implement practices and programs that result in better outcomes for girls. Fund prevention programs that keep girls from being physically or sexually abused. Divert girls who have been subject to the Abuse to Prison pipeline away from the juvenile and adult justice system whenever possible, and toward more community-based supports. To the extent possible, girls should be kept in their homes or as close to their homes as possible in settings that provide trauma and gender-responsive programming, education, and therapeutic support. In those rare cases when girls must be in secure care, girls and all youth under 18, should always be held in juvenile settings and not in the adult system.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to take the time to ask girls in the system what their needs are—they are the experts on their own lives. When they tell us—we need to listen. Only then will we be able to stop the Abuse to Prison Pipeline and ensure that all of our girls have the opportunity to thrive.