JJDPA reauthorization: An opportunity to dismantle the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline

According to experts one in four girls will experience sexual violence before turning 18. Now imagine if instead of providing these children services or going after their abusers, we instead threw them in jail.  

According to a new report, that’s exactly what is happening. The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, explains how girls—and particularly girls of color—are routinely arrested and detained for behaviors stemming from sexual violence and trauma. Authored by the Human Rights Project for Girls, Ms. Foundation for Women, and Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, the report urges for recognition, in our broader discourse of criminal justice reform, of how girls are also being unjustly criminalized. 

Recently there's been growing debate around mass incarceration and the “school-to-prison pipeline,” but in all those conversations, girls' lives remain invisible. These narratives fail to account for the distinct pathways of girls into the justice system, when in fact girls represent the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice population. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention, approximately 600,000 girls are arrested in the U.S. annually. Most of these girls are remanded for non-violent offenses such as truancy, running away, or alcohol and substance abuse—all behaviors that are strongly associated with suffering trauma. In fact, research shows that 73 percent of girls  of girls in the juvenile justice system report past instances of physical and/or sexual abuse—with rates as high as 93 percent and 81 percent in states like Oregon and South Carolina, respectively.  

Remarkably, it is this abuse that is funneling girls into the juvenile justice system, as it is often the root cause of the girls’ running away, becoming truant, and abusing drugs. Citing case studies from young girl survivors, the report details, for example, the injustice of criminalizing girls who are trafficked for sex. Each year in the U.S., over 1,000 children are arrested for prostitution, despite most being too young to consent to sex.  And according to the FBI, African-American children comprise 59 percent of all prostitution-related arrests for those under the age of 18—more than any other racial group. The arrest of girls for prostitution also contradicts prevailing federal law that makes clear any child under the age of 18 engaged in a commercial sex act is by definition a victim of human trafficking. Yet in many states and jurisdictions, trafficked girls continue to face the added trauma and indignity of incarceration when they are in fact, victims of child rape. 

Other girls are arrested for running away from abusive homes or foster care placements—or for being repeatedly late or absent from school because a trafficker is forcing a young girl to “work” by moving her to different cities to be bought and sold—or because she is being sexually harassed at school. 

But there is hope—pending legislation in Congress presents a critical opportunity to improve our response towards justice-involved girls. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which is the single most important piece of federal legislation focused on youth in juvenile justice systems, is up for reauthorization—providing a significant avenue for reform. 

Last reauthorized in 2002, the bipartisan JJDPA is being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. This year’s language includes significant updates and improvements specifically around girls, sex trafficking, and sexual violence. There is even language seeking to eliminate the use of restraints on pregnant girls in custody. 

The Girls’ Story aims to illuminate the hidden lives of girls behind bars to help promote a more gender-responsive, trauma-informed approach to girls in the system. But now, with the JJDPA up for reauthorization, lawmakers have a real opportunity to act.  Starting with the JJDPA markup this Thursday, Congress can take the first step toward dismantling this unjust and harmful pipeline for girls.

Vafa is co-founder and director of Law and Policy at the Human Rights Project for Girls.