Girls' Justice Day

Friday, 20 October 2017

Girls' Justice Day

By Cherice Hopkins, Esq. and Hayley Carlisle

Today is Girls’ Justice Day, a day during Youth Justice Action Month that serves as a reminder to uplift and reflect on the unique experiences of girls in the juvenile justice system. It is particularly significant that Girls’ Justice Day also takes place during Domestic Violence Awareness Month because for most justice-involved girls, their paths into the juvenile justice system begin with abuse. 

Nationally, 73% of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced some form of abuse. In 2015, Rights4Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Ms. Foundation released The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, to explain the ways in which girls are criminalized for their responses to violence. All too often girls’ coping behaviors and sometimes even their very experiences of victimization are met with punishment instead of services. Girls in the justice system are overwhelmingly, girls are girls of color, LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming girls, girls in child welfare and girls from other vulnerable and marginalized communities.

The failure to recognize traumatized girls and respond to them as survivors of violence has contributed to their overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system. While the number of youth involved in the justice system has seen significant declines in recent years, this trend is less optimistic when viewed with a gender and racial lens. Girls’ shares of the juvenile justice system—from arrest to incarceration—have significantly increased, which has disproportionately impacted LGBT girls, gender-nonconforming girls, and girls of color. For example, nearly 40% of girls in juvenile justice facilities identify as LGB and girls of color now account for 66% of incarcerated girls though they only comprise 22% of all youth.

Recent research sheds light on why Black girls are especially vulnerable to the Abuse to Prison Pipeline. According to Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, a recent report by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, people tend to view Black girls between the ages of 5-14, as older, more independent, more knowledgeable about sex, and less in need of support and comfort than their white peers. These tropes and attitudes towards girls of color prevent our schools, our public systems, and our law enforcement from effectively supporting girls who have experienced trauma.

Thankfully, not only is there a growing body of research focused on the experiences of vulnerable and marginalized girls and the ways in which they are rendered susceptible to juvenile justice involvement, there are also increased efforts to implement gender and culturally-specific practices that interrupt the Abuse to Prison Pipeline. Most notably are the House and Senate’s passage of bills (H.R.1809 and S.860) to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). These bills contain important protections for girls, including:

·         Requiring the screening of justice-involved youth for trafficking and other forms of sexual abuse and diverting survivors to community-based programs,

·         Eliminating the unreasonable use of restraints on pregnant girls,

·         Requiring the collection of data regarding pregnant girls in detention, and

·         Authorizing prevention programs for girls at-risk of justice involvement, including survivors of sex trafficking and other forms of abuse.

These provisions are important steps in addressing the underlying trauma that lead to actions that are commonly deemed as misbehavior, and changing our response to marginalized survivors of violence from criminalization to support and services. In order to carry this momentum forward, we must urge Congress to reauthorize the JJDPA and remember that we must make girls’ needs central to our advocacy efforts—not just on Girls’ Justice Day, but throughout the year.

Cherice Hopkins, Esq. is the Staff Attorney with Rights4Girls, a human rights organization working to end sex trafficking and gender-based violence in the U.S. Hayley Carlisle is the Policy Fellow with the Campaign for Youth Justice.

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