Teenage Girl Detainments Are Increasing—But Not Because They’re Committing Crimes

by Alexa Salvato

We hear most often about how the school-to-prison pipeline fills our prisons with poor youth of color, but there’s another harmful system that, until recently, has been overlooked: the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline.

In a recent report by the Human Rights Project for Girls, The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women called “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” four researchers explain that the majority of girls detained in the juvenile justice system have previously experienced sexual abuse. As the thorough report states, “One in four American girls will experience some form of sexual violence by the age of 18. Fifteen percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12”—and many of those girls are later imprisoned.

The study also explains how girls of color and LGBT/gender non-conforming youth are particularly at risk. For example, as is reflected in other prison statistics categorized by race, only 14 percent of girls in the U.S. are African-American, but African-American girls comprise 33.2 percent of those detained. Additionally, 5 to 7 percent of American youth identify as LGBT, but about 15 percent “come into contact with the juvenile justice system.”

It’s been well established that youth trauma (often called ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences) is a factor that leads to incarceration later in life. For detainment of girls, sexual abuse is the single most defining traumatic experience: “For girls more than for boys, this connection is strongly rooted in the experience of sexual violence…. In fact, it appears to have a greater impact on girls’ re-entry into the system than other risk factors like behavioral problems and prior justice involvement.”

The reason for this correlation is fairly simple: “Girls’ behavioral reaction to sexual abuse and trauma is criminalized, reinforcing the sexual abuse to prison pipeline…. The most common crimes for which girls are arrested — including running away, substance abuse, and truancy — are also the most common symptoms of abuse.”

Accounts about and by girls explain that children below the age of consent are being prosecuted for selling sex when they are in fact victims of child sex trafficking here in the United States. Another account about a high school student named Sasha explained that after she was raped, Sasha was harassed by other students online and, to protect herself, stopped attending school. Although she and her mother tried to find alternative schooling, they were unable to, and Sasha dropped out. Sasha was arrested for unrelated charges and saw a therapist in prison who finally helped her find an educational advocate that got her into an alternative school. She was later able to graduate high school. 

For girls who have run away from unsafe homes, it may seem that prisons provide an institutional alternative to “home.” However, the juvenile justice system is poorly funded, staffed, and equipped to handle girls’ traumatic experiences; many girls are in fact re-victimized and re-traumatized in prison. “[Protection] cannot counterbalance the significant psychological and physical harms created by commitment.

Nadiyah Shereff, a former child inmate, explains this firsthand: “I became even more withdrawn and angry. … At that time what I needed was to talk to folks about all I had been through, to feel connected to people — to feel useful, so that I could find my own direction in life. I needed to heal from the trauma and to be supported with love and encouragement.”

The report also details suggestions for the juvenile justice system, including funding for gender-specific crime experts, more comprehensive mental health screenings, to cross-tabulate gender research by race to help spotlight the most vulnerable communities; and to identify and divert victims of child sex trafficking from the criminal justice system since the crime was never there.

Reports like these are vital to improving the lives of girls in America, and we’re so glad that these foundations worked together to create this one. Click here to read it in full.

Images via Leslie Acoca, Child Trends, and the Human Rights Project for Girls

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