In a shocking new study released Thursday by Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women, more than 80% of the girls in some states’ juvenile detention centers were survivors of physical or sexual abuse prior to becoming incarcerated.

While not entirely surprising–poor circumstances often lead to tangible effects on the sufferer–the high percentage is absolutely overwhelming. While it was to be expected that a relatively high number of troubled girls were the majority imprisoned, those odds don’t look good at all.

The report describes this as the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline, with prior sexual abuse acting both as reasons for incarceration as well as the circumstances that led to the girls’ heightened risk of incarceration. While the more apparent manifestations of sexual abuse leading towards prison include prostitution, the subtler ways that abuse can insert itself into young lives are far more sinister. The report summary says, “It illustrates the pipeline with examples, including the detention of girls who are victims of sex trafficking, girls who run away or become truant because of abuse they experience, and girls who cross into juvenile justice from the child welfare system.”

Typical juvenile offensives include truancy, running away, or alcohol possession. While these crimes are the most common among girls, the report notes that these are all symptoms of abuse. These “criminal” acts are also fairly innocuous, seeing as they’re non-violent offenses that only have illegal status due to age. It’s not very hard to see why a child facing any sort of abuse would try to run away, ditch school, or even escape through substance and alcohol abuse.

“Inside juvie I met other girls like myself who were there for prostitution, running away, and truancy,” Nadiuah Sjereff, a former juvenile inmate, reports. “We were not violent girls. We were girls who were hurting. Being confined to a tiny cement room was one of the hardest things I ever had to experience. Being locked up all I could do was reflect on my life but it didn’t seem to help. I became even more withdrawn and angry.”

The report calls for truly rehabilitative programs that, instead of needlessly committing these young girls, aids in solving their problem and working out their behavior. Jail is often viewed as a form of punishment that leads towards “fixing” a criminal’s behavior, but wider studies simply show that prisons could actually increase (or at the very least, not decrease) the likelihood that a person will commit another crime–even among adults.

According to the Department of Justice, 88% of juvenile detainees reside in facilities that lack a single licensed mental health professional. When these facilities fail to recognize and help to alleviate the trauma of sexual abuse, they cause further harm than was ever originally present in the victims

Furthermore, it’s a given that girls of color are disproportionately affected. While racial equality as a whole is a very important topic, especially in conversations involving racist police force, the over-policing of minority girls has been sorely neglected.

It’s time to stop criminalizing sexual abuse victims because of the ways they try to alleviate their trauma. The ineffectiveness of prisons and the failure to identify at-risk/possible victims and obtain justice for them is a heartbreaking reality that doesn’t have to be that way at all.

At the very least, The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is up for reauthorization by Congress this year and–while still in support of prisons–reduces the harm done to victims that wind up in these institutions. Some of the proposals seek to expand access to mental health and trauma services, while others–rightfully–work towards keeping these girls out of prison in the first place.

  • Caressa Wong

    Caressa Wong is a radical, non-binary Chinese-American who dabbles in video, art, and writing. If they're not lost in video games or off getting sucked into some new project, then you can find them fighting Asian fetishists and reading post-colonial & inter-sectional meditations.