Report says girls being misdirected into juvenile detention

Offenses don't warrant imprisonment, critics say, and mental-health needs not addressed behind bars

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Teenaged girls hold hands as they wait for individual interviews about alleged abuses at the Columbia Training School, during a Mississippi Youth Justice Program news conference in Jackson, Miss., in July 2007. 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Girls who are victims of abuse are being inappropriately funneled into juvenile detention halls that fail to treat them for mental-health needs, a report unveiled Thursday argues.

The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story” was produced by the Human Rights Project for Girls in Washington, D.C., as well as the Center on Poverty and Equality at Georgetown University Law Center and the Ms. Foundation for Women. The Human Rights Project for Girls’ leaders have fought for legislation to require prompt help for sex-trafficking victims who are foster-care children, and to expose sex trafficking of minors through Craigslist ads. Craigslist has publicly defended itself over several years against allegations its services may have facilitated trafficking.   

The report notes that girls’ involvement in juvenile justice systems nationally is “growing disproportionately,” and that girls of color are especially affected; the girls are sent to juvenile facilities largely because they’re accused of offenses of some kind, but critics say many of those infractions are minor, and should not result in incarceration. And many of these young women have at some point been victims of abuse.     

The authors of the report note that Congress has an opportunity to address lapses in how girls in crisis are treated by tying state funding to certain requirements under federal law.

As the Center for Public Integrity recently reported, Congress is currently reviewing how it might reauthorize the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The act governs rules states must abide by when they confine and treat prosecuted juveniles, if they want federal money for related programs.  

The reasons why girls are being disproportionately referred to juvenile-justice systems require more study, the report says, but existing research shows that the phenomenon is not driven by increases in violent or criminal behavior.

Instead, according to the report, girls are getting arrested and detained mostly for misdemeanors, technical violations, such as disobeying probation orders, or so-called status offenses—which are infractions that only minors can commit, such as running away from home and truancy from school.

The report notes that even though these girls’ problems are often rooted in emotional, physical and sexual abuse, no national requirements exist to screen detainees for such trauma.

A number of state surveys suggest that many or the majority of girls held in detention have experienced physical or sexual abuse at home or elsewhere.

“Yet when girls enter the juvenile justice system,” according to the report, “mental health screenings are rarely administered by licensed professionals, and follow-up assessments and treatment are frequently inadequate.”

Based on recent research findings, the report says, most confined youth are held in facilities in which mental-health counselors are not licensed professionals.

The authors of the report urge Congress to amend the 1974 federal juvenile-justice act to require states to evaluate all children for trauma as they enter juvenile-justice systems, and then provide specific treatment.

The authors also urge a requirement that states—if they want federal juvenile-justice funds—“screen children at intake for commercial sexual exploitation and divert identified victims away from the juvenile justice system whenever possible.”

In addition, the report calls for states to end arrest and prosecution of minors for prostitution.

“Such laws,” the authors write, “would be consistent with state laws that declare minors to be legally incapable of consenting to sex, as well as federal law, which defines any act of commercial sex with a person under the age of 18 as a severe form of trafficking in persons.”

In 2013, as the Center reported, agencies under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences also urged all states to treat child prostitutes as victims and prohibit their arrest, prosecution and detention.

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