Girls in the Justice System

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Author: Nicole Karem

In a perfect world, the number of young people incarcerated each year would be zero.  Incarceration decreases the chances that a child is going to graduate from high school and increases the chances that they are going to end up in an adult prison by the time they turn twenty five.  The system we have now is not designed to adequately meet the needs of children, whose brains are not fully developed until the age of 25.  And yet we know that if these needs were met, children would be less likely to return to prison as adults.  As inadequate as the current system is over all, its ability to meet the needs of the girls who are incarcerated is even worse.  Girls make up approximately 15% of the incarcerated young people in the country, and yet the system as it is designed now cannot meet their needs. 

The majority of girls who are incarcerated had childhoods full of abuse and neglect.  Many of these girls do not have access to the resources they need to work through this trauma while they are incarcerated or, worse yet, they are forced to relive the trauma they experienced as kids while behind bars.  Girls in prison are frequently victims of sexual assault, both before incarceration and while incarcerated and the fact that the vast majority of prison guards in the country are men does not help this situation.

A study of two facilities for girls in New York state shows the pervasive problems that plague many juvenile facilities which house girls.  The Tryon and Lansing facilities are located in “remote locations” which isolate the young girls housed there from their families.  These girls are often subject to the “restraint” position, in which they are grabbed from behind and pushed face first into the floor.  This type of restraint is intended to only be used as a last resort, but girls in the facility have reported it being used as punishment for minor infractions. These facilities are not alone.  Girls in other facilities have reported being sent to solitary confinement for small offenses and sexual assault in girls’ juvenile facilities is more prevalent than it is in facilties that house boys.

Girls often enter incarceration with more serious concerns, both mental and physical, than their male counterparts, and the facilities in which they are housed often only serve to exacerbate this trauma.  Girls and boys also have developmental differences that are not addressed in these facilities.  Instead of treating juvenile facilities as gender neutral, the Georgetown Center on Poverty recommends that gender be taken into consideration, including incorporating empowerment and healing opportunities into the facilities.  It is important, also, that these facilities consider the needs of all girls, both cis and transgender, as they move away from gender neutral treatment of young people. 

By considering gender in the juvenile justice system, it is possible to adjust the system from one which merely sequesters young people away from the rest of society, potentially exacerbating the physical and mental health issues which may have led them to come in contact with the juvenile justice system in the first place, to one which offers young people the treatment they need so that they will not find themselves incarcerated again in the future.  Although girls make up a relatively small percentage of young people involved with the legal system compared to boys, they deserve care which takes into consideration the full circumstances of their contact with the system and which sets them up for success in the future.

None of this is to say that incarcerated boys in the United States don’t deserve the attention of those trying to change the system.  However, girls in incarceration face a unique set of problems and circumstances.  Creating an equitable justice system for all young people requires paying special attention to the experiences of young girls behind bars.