What You Need to Know About the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline

By Angela Myers, Communications Intern

The juvenile justice system is criminalizing sexual assault victims. In our juvenile justice system, many, if not most, of the young women placed in the juvenile justice system are victims of sexual abuse.

Although in the last 20 years the amount of youths placed in the juvenile system has gone down, the proportion of young girls placed into the system has increased.  As stated in an Education Week article, “Sexual abuse is a “primary predictor” for involvement with the juvenile-justice system, and that girls of color—particularly African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinas—are disproportionately affected.”  By putting young women into the juvenile system, the root problems of bad behavior and delinquency aren’t being solved. Sexual abuse history is also strongly linked to the likelihood that a young woman will be charged again after release.

What is the issue?

The sexual abuse to Prison pipeline is an issue that focuses specifically on young women who have experienced sexual assault. These girls are pushed into the juvenile justice system for displaying understandable reactions to trauma, which usually meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). By being placed into the juvenile system, girls don’t have access to proper mental health treatment. As data and reports show, girls are 4.4 times more likely to experience sexual assault than boys. By placing these girls in the juvenile justice system we are taking them out of their communities, not giving them the help that they need to psychologically recover from trauma. The juvenile justice system is also known for having an ineffective education system. This inhibits those in the system to easily transfer out and back to school. So in the end, by placing victims in the juvenile justice system girls are taken out of their communities and everything they know.

Sexual assault is a traumatic experience that leads many young women to act out.  But the research so far shows that an overwhelming majority of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced sexual abuse. In a 2006 study in Oregon, 96 percent of the girls in the juvenile justice system had a history of sexual abuse, and 76 percent had experienced one incident of sexual or physical abuse before age thirteen. Additionally, in a 2009 study in South Carolina of “delinquent girls”, 84 percent reported a history of sexual violence. In Angela Davis’s book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Davis writes extensively, in the chapter  “How Gender Structures the Prison system,” on the sexual abuse that is experienced by women in the prison system in California, before and after they enter the system. A major problem and factor in our juvenile justice system and our prison system is that women and girls are being sexually abused in prisons, and if they aren’t, the standard practices of those systems have the potential to retraumatize victims. Strip searching, for example, is standard practice for adult prisons but on a case-by-case basis in the juvenile justice system. Being stripped searched can be retraumatizing for victims of sexual assault.

The most common crimes for which girls are arrested—running away, substance abuse, and truancy—are also the most common reactions to abuse. Putting these girls into the juvenile justice system is generally a harsher conviction than needed if we want to punish these girls for their crimes. These crimes are also often painted as ones that need to be punished early and quickly, rather than treated. These girls are not criminals, but victims. Once we see that these victims need treatment not punishment, hopefully then we will be able to curb the sheer amount of girls in the juvenile justice system.

Why is this important?
It has become obvious lately that the juvenile justice system and the prison system in general is flawed. A disproportionate amount of the women in these systems are women of color. By criminalizing young girls who have experienced sexual assault we are further traumatizing those girls and not fixing the root of the problem that caused their delinquent behavior. Girls who are put into the juvenile justice system also face the stigma of being labeled a “delinquent child” and that can follow them once they leave the system. Then after they re-integrate back into school the change in structure may retrigger problematic behavior. These girls and all young women deserve respect and also the proper care for their needs. This can change if we give therapy to girls who are exhibiting bad behavior in the classroom and signs of trauma. Also we can work toward ending sexual abuse toward young girls by giving therapy and rehabilitation to rapists and child molesters. As a society we need to stop sexual assault at all ages. Until then we can’t criminalize the behaviors of young women who are acting out because of their trauma due to sexual assault.

3 Responses to “What You Need to Know About the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline”

  1. Samuel Myers

    Is the sexual abuse to prison pipeline different for girls of color vs whites? In their research on child maltreatment reporting, Ards, et al. show that white females are far more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than are blacks or Latinas. How, then, do you explain the higher rates of involvement among black females in the juvenile justice system using the abuse to juvenile justice pipeline explanation?

    Reply
  2. Emelio Lizardo

    93% of the prison population is male. Much of this is due to the disparity of treatment between males and females by the criminal justice system.

    If in any institution gender equality is needed, it is here. If anything, we need to send more women to prison, or far, far, fewer men.

    Like the Draft, prison is not a problem until a few women are part of the problem. This is the Glass Cellar.

    Reply

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