The Sex-Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline: How Girls of Color Are Unjustly Arrested and Incarcerated

Your Take: Black and brown girls are first victimized and then punished, often in connection with sexual violence that has been perpetrated against them.

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In 2014, President Barack Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper, a desperately needed initiative to create educational and economic opportunities for black and brown boys and men. In addition to My Brother’s Keeper, there has been a new and emerging recognition that mass incarceration must come to an end, along with the school-to-prison pipeline that relegates so many youths of color to the juvenile-justice system.

Against the backdrop of these efforts, there seems to be a common trope that girls of color are fine. Unlike black and brown boys, they are not endangered by punitive school policies that push them out, or a systematic criminalization of their behavior that pipelines them into the juvenile-justice system. Black and brown girls are not fine, and their struggles are being dangerously left out of the discursive spaces on criminal-justice reform.

My organization, the Human Rights Project for Girls, along with the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Ms. Foundation for Women, just released “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story” (pdf), a report that exposes how girls, specifically girls of color, are arrested and incarcerated as a result of sexual abuse.

One in 3 juveniles arrested (pdf) is a girl. Girls tend to be arrested at younger ages than boys, usually entering the system at age 13 or 14. And while girls are only 14 percent of incarcerated youths, they make up the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile-justice system.

Sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors (pdf) of girls’ detention. Girls are rarely arrested for violent crimes. They are arrested for nonviolent behaviors that are correlative with enduring and escaping from abusive environments—offenses such as truancy and running away. Many girls run away from abusive homes or foster-care placements, only to then be arrested for the status offense of running away. Whereas abused women are told to run from their batterers, when girls run from abuse, they are locked up.

There is also the grim example of how girls are criminalized when they are trafficked for sex as children. When poor black and brown girls are bought and sold for sex, they are rarely regarded or treated as victims of trafficking. Instead, they are children jailed for prostitution. According to the FBI, African-American children make up 59 percent (pdf) of all prostitution-related arrests under the age of 18 in the U.S., and girls make up 76 percent (pdf) of all prostitution-related arrests under the age of 18 in the U.S.

Another lens through which to understand the degree of sexual violence and trauma endured by justice-involved girls is their own histories. The younger a girl’s age when she enters the juvenile-justice system, the more likely she is (pdf) to have been sexually assaulted and/or seriously physically injured. One California study found that 60 percent (pdf) of girls in the state’s jails had been raped or were in danger of being raped at some point in their lives. Similarly, a study of delinquent girls in South Carolina found that 81 percent (pdf) reported a history of sexual violence: Sixty-nine percent had experienced violence by their caregiver, and 42 percent reported dating violence.

It has to be pointed out, as the “Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline” report does, that this is, distinctly, a pipeline for girls of color. Youths of color account for 45 percent of the general youth population, but girls of color—who are approximately half of all youths of color—make up approximately two-thirds of girls who are incarcerated.

There must be real questions raised about why girls of color are being imprisoned for their victimization. Why is the status of victim or survivor denied to girls of color at the margins? Why are they not contemplated as victims, and do entrenched racial mythologies that frame black and brown girls as oversexualized, promiscuous and sexually loose contribute to the denied status?

We must surface the hidden and disregarded realities of how vulnerable black and brown girls are treated differently, and indeed punished, for their experiences of sexual and physical abuse. We cannot continue to leave them behind. Because their lives matter.

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