Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Study Shows How Juvenile System Criminalizes Girls Who are Victimized by Sexual Abuse

A Norman, Oklahoma high school student, raped by a male peer and repeatedly harassed and touted by her classmates, is suspended from school after she lashes out and swings at another student.

A girl, 17, under the age of legal consent, is charged in California with solicitation of prostitution after being sold again and again by her abusive pimp.

And another teenager is compelled to drop out of school after she is raped by a classmate.  Only after she is arrested two years later on petty theft charges does she finally receive therapy and assistance to help her complete her education at an alternative school.

Profiled in a recent report by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, these are the stories of girls growing up sexually and physically abused and, in a sick twist, ultimately criminalized by law enforcement and the juvenile justice system.

“Despite the body of research showing that the effect of trauma and abuse drives girls into the juvenile justice system, the system itself typically overlooks the context of abuse when determining whether to arrest or charge a girl, often with a minor offense”, says the Georgetown Law report, published in June 2015.

“When law enforcement views girls as perpetrators, and when their cases are not dismissed or diverted but sent deeper into the justice system, the cost is twofold:  girls’ abusers are shielded from accountability, and the trauma that is the underlying cause of the behavior in not addressed.

“The choice to punish instead of support”, the report continues, “sets in motion a cycle of abuse and imprisonment that has harmful consequences for victims of trauma”.  Though sexual violence is certainly not exclusive to either gender, it is sexual violence against girls that is a “crisis of national proportions”, according to the report, co-authored by the Human Rights Project for Girls and the Ms. Foundation for Women.  And the data, gathered by the reports’ authors, makes that assessment more than mere hyperbole.

By the age of 18, 25% of all American girls will have been the victim of sexual violence.  The percentage is even higher among girls in the juvenile justice system, with nearly a third having reported being the victims of sexual abuse; a rate that is more than four times higher than boys in the juvenile justice system.

And, the report says, girls in the system “also are victimized by sexual violence at an earlier average age, and for a longer average duration, than other forms of abuse”.

Meanwhile, girls of color are particularly, and disproportionately, affected by the justice system’s rush to lock up underage victims of sexual abuse.

For instance, while African American girls represent but a tiny fraction of the country’s general population, 33.2% of them have been detained and committed as a result of criminal cases, according to a May 2015 Department of Justice study.

Native American girls are just 1% of the total U.S. youth population, but are 3.5% of detained and committed girls in the system.  They also represent the highest rate of confinement among girls of color, with 179 per 100,000 Native American girls nationally being jailed by the juvenile justice system.  The rate for African American girls is 123 per 100,000, while Latinas are confined at a rate of 47 per 100,000.

Local and regional studies provide even more troubling data on incarcerated girls across all racial demographics.  According to a 2006 study of girls in Oregon’s justice system, for example, 93% had experienced sexual or physical abuse; a staggering 76% of them had been sexually abused at least once by the age of 13.

A 2009 study of so-called “delinquent” girls in South Carolina reported that 81% of them had histories of sexual violence, and 42% had histories of “dating” violence.  And while a 1998 study of girls in California’s juvenile justice system uncovered similar data, it also found that nearly half of them had reported being beaten or burned at least once.

In response to such trauma, the Georgetown Law report explains, girls most commonly get themselves into trouble for truancy, running away from home and substance abuse, which “are also the most common symptoms of abuse”.

“For girls who are sent into the juvenile justice system because of behavior based on their reaction to trauma”, the reports’ authors argue, “…detention is an unjust and harmful practice.  These girls are not a threat to public safety.  Arresting and detaining them effectively punishes girls for being victims, and it fails to provide the services necessary to heal and recover”.

“It is simply an unacceptable response”, the authors conclude, “to child sexual abuse”.

A more appropriate and humane response, researchers say, is mandatory mental health treatment for juvenile offenders who have been victimized by abuse.  A Florida study, for instance, found that girls in the justice system who received mental health treatment were 37% less likely to re-offend.

And in Oregon, a 2009 study found that girls who were provided a “trauma-based intervention”, were half as likely to become pregnant within two years than girls who received more traditional forms of treatment.

The Georgetown Law report also called on juvenile justice facilities nationwide to provide better and more thorough medical care to girls by way of gynecological and obstetric services.  And, most urgently, the report’s authors recommended that Congress should reauthorize and strengthen the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which sets federal standards for state-run juvenile facilities and provides funding to improve the juvenile justice system which has not been re-authorized since 2002.

“Girls high rates of sexual abuse and their increased involvement in the juvenile justice system is not a coincidence.  There is a direct correlation”, the report argues.  “Research has illuminated the link between girls’ trauma and the ever-widening law enforcement net in which girls are caught, most of ten on minor offenses.

“We must take action”, the authors conclude, “to learn more about the systemic criminalization of victimized girls, who are disproportionately girls of color.  In the context of the emerging and significant debate on the criminalization of boys of color, our report is a definitive call to recognize the harm that is girls’ experience”.

Source:  “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”, Georgetown Law Center for Poverty and Inequality, June 2015;

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login