We Need to See Her: How the Juvenile Justice System Sets Our Girls Up for Failure

by Liz Alexander

See Her.

As we continue to grieve the lives of Black women and girls who are murdered by state and systemic violence as well as confront the invisibility and marginalization of those lives in larger discourse, black and brown girls are being silently swallowed up by the juvenile justice system.

Girls are the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system.

The numbers are even more staggering for girls of color, who are disproportionately impacted by juvenile incarceration, when compared to their white counterparts. African American girls, for example, comprise of 33.2 percent of the juvenile justice system but only make up 14 percent of the national population. In a newly released report entitled “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girl’s Story,” this disproportionality was not found to be attributed to an increase of criminal activity or violence among girls but was instead found to be a result of “an aggressive enforcement of non-serious offenses that are rooted in the experience of abuse and trauma” as well as racialized and gendered policies.

In fact, incarcerated girls in general, were found to overwhelmingly experience trauma, poor health, family conflict, and residential instability. According to the report, in general, girls were more likely to report being the victim of violence. Among a sample of female juvenile offenders, 74% reported being hurt or in danger of being hurt, 60% reported being raped or in danger of being raped and 76% reported witnessing someone being severely injured or killed.

Additionally, incarcerated girls reported experiencing significant levels of physical punishment, sexual abuse and high levels of psychological distress; with higher percentages of abuse being reported amongst girls of color. In their 2005 report entitled “Detention Reform and Girls: Challenges and Solutions,” the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) found that there is an over reliance on the juvenile justice system to deal with “troubled and traumatized children.”

Simply put, girls are being criminalized for their victimization.

Overall, in general, girls are more likely to be detained for non-serious offenses. Girls were found to have higher rates of incarceration for technical violations such as missing a meeting with a probation officer and status offenses, also known as crimes committed by youth, such as running away. Less than 10% of girls were reported to be arrested for committing violent crimes.

Our girls are in crisis. And they have fallen victim to a punitive juvenile justice system that is incapable of meeting their needs; often resulting in further victimization and high rates of recidivism, making it difficult to successfully transition back into community. In order to effectively address the unique challenges of girls in the justice system as well as ensure a successful transition back into society post release, there needs to be a multi-tiered system of support grounded in prevention, intervention and community based diversion programs as well as trauma informed rehabilitative spaces. It is also crucial that girls are empowered.

This need for empowerment has prompted me along with other girl advocates, to host panels entitled “Girl Magic: Igniting the Power Within,” where we identify self definition, self love, self care and sisterhood as tools of power, with populations of vulnerable girls. Recently we had the opportunity to talk with girls in the Close To Home program, a program that allows justice involved youth to serve their sentences is community rather than in detention.

As we engaged these youth, the youngest of them age 14, it was apparent that these girls were relegated to the margins; that these girls were overlooked; that these girls were violated; that these girls were sacrificed; that these girls were subjected to juvenile justice policies with harmful racial and gendered consequences. But it was also apparent that these girls were resilient; that these girls were brilliant; that these girls were wise; that these girls had an indomitable will to live; and that these girls, our girls, were sacred.

We “saw” them.
We believed them.
We affirmed their existence.

And they were beautiful.

For more information about how to support girls in the juvenile justice system, please visit the National Crittenton Foundation to explore ways to get involved.

Photo: Shutterstock

Liz Alexander is an urgent, connected and responsible woman. She is a womanist social worker, writer and founder of She Dreams of Freedom (SDF), a project that uses media to raise awareness about the plight of girls in the juvenile justice. Liz is a regular contributor for For Harriet as well as the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE). She writes on themes of trauma, healing, spirituality and social justice. Follow her on twitter @radicalwholenes.

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