The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: What is it, and What Can Be Done?

Leisha Goel is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.

Over the last 20 years, the number of juveniles placed in the juvenile justice system has decreased amidst calls for reforming the system, yet the number of young girls in the system over the same time period has only increased. According to research conducted by the Girls Study Group of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the increase in girls’ rate of arrest and incarceration over the last two decades is not a result of increased rates of engaging in criminal activity or violent behavior. However, many, if not most, of these girls have been victims of sexual abuse. 

While sexual abuse has been found to be one of the most accurate predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system, the impact of trauma from experiencing sexual violence is rarely taken into consideration when placing these girls into the system. Known as the sexual abuse to prison pipeline, this vicious cycle allows the criminal justice system to punish young women for being victims of abuse rather than helping them recover from a horrible trauma.

What is the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline?

The sexual abuse to prison pipeline is a term coined by a collaborative report published by the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law about how the justice system criminalizes girls who have experienced sexual and physical abuse. The term describes how sexual violence can lead to girls being placed in the system as a direct outcome of their victimization. The pipeline mainly applies to young women, particularly those under the age of 18, who have experienced sexual assault. As such, these girls fall under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts, where status offenses, or acts that are only unlawful when committed by youth like truancy, breaking curfew, and running away from home, can lead to them being placed in the juvenile justice system. 

Research shows that an overwhelming majority of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced sexual abuse. The rate of sexual abuse for girls in the system is more than 4 times higher than it is for boys. In 2006, a study found that 96 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system in Oregon had a history of sexual abuse, and 76 percent had experienced one incident of sexual or physical abuse before the age of thirteen. In a 2009 study from South Carolina, 84 percent of “delinquent girls” reported a history of sexual violence. 

Some of the most common crimes that girls are arrested for, such as the aforementioned status offenses, are also some of the most common symptoms of abuse. But with growing distrust of the criminal justice system and rarely administered and poorly funded mental health services, the signs of being a victim of abuse and of trauma go unnoticed more often than not. Rather than ensuring these girls receive proper mental health treatment to address their trauma, the juvenile justice system chooses to detain them and classify them as delinquents.  

Racial Disparities in the Pipeline

One of the biggest issues of the pipeline is that it disproportionately affects girls of color and exacerbates racial inequality. Today, girls of color account for 62 percent of the girls who are in residential placement in the juvenile justice system, but they only comprise approximately 24 percent of the youth population in the United States. African American and Native American girls were found to be incarcerated at higher rates than Asian, white, and Hispanic girls for the same offenses. 

It should be noted that the experience of being detained and imprisoned in the justice system can be re-traumatizing for girls and women. In both the juvenile justice and prison systems, girls and women are sexually abused, with a disproportionate impact on girls of color. In addition, the practices of detainment such as strip-searching on a case-by-case basis for juveniles and normally for adults can be re-traumatizing for victims of sexual abuse. These re-traumatizing factors have shown to increase rates of recidivism for girls who are detained as juveniles as they become adults. 

What Can Be Done?

There have been several policy recommendations put forth by researchers and criminal justice advocates in the past five years to address the sexual abuse to prison pipeline:

  1. Provide Law Enforcement Training on Gender Bias and Gender Stereotyping to Decrease Girls’ Contact with the Justice System

State-mandated training would help law enforcement understand implicit and structural gender and racial bias that results in the disproportionate rates of girls entering the system, and to better recognize trauma. These trainings would address recognizing trauma at different levels of law enforcement in the juvenile justice system including police officers, case workers, states attorneys, and judges.

  1. Strengthen the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA)

The JJDPA was passed in 1974 and is the foremost federal legislation governing conditions of confinement for youth and delinquency prevention. Adding more accountability mechanisms to ensure that states comply with standards and guidelines for gender-specific services, as well as providing more funding for mental health screenings and additional personnel, are just some of the revisions that have been suggested to avoid re-traumatization and decrease recidivism rates.

  1. Close the Valid Court Order Loophole

The JJDPA prohibits arresting juveniles for status offenses, but a loophole was created by Congress in 1980 called the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception. It allows children to be detained if they violate court orders that prohibit them from committing enumerated status offenses. While some states have closed this loophole, the majority have not. Given that girls are disproportionately charged with and detained for status offenses, removing this exception would be beneficial to girls and to ending the pipeline.

While ending this pipeline would require a coordinated effort between multiple agencies and a massive influx of funding into child welfare, it could have a lasting impact on the juvenile justice system. Few steps have been taken to address the issue of the sexual abuse to prison pipeline, but criminal justice and sexual assault prevention advocates are continuing to call for action to end this vicious cycle and for more research to be conducted in this area. Knowing more about how the trauma of experiencing sexual abuse manifests in young girls and how that can be addressed before it escalates to point of delinquency could help generations of girls to come.

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