A recent article on JJIE, written by The National Crittenton Foundation’s President Jeannette Pai-Espinosa, examines how the juvenile justice system impacts girls who have committed status offenses, as well as the stigma that surrounds them.
Pai-Espinosa first calls out three grim facts about girls in the juvenile justice system:
- “The percentage of girls in the juvenile justice system has steadily increased over the decades, rising from 17 percent in 1980 to 29 percent in 2011.”
- “Girls are more likely than boys to be arrested for status offenses — behaviors that would not be considered offenses at the age of majority — and often receive more severe punishment than boys.”
- “Victimization of girls typically precedes their involvement with the system.”
As it’s often hard to understand the impact of these facts, Pai-Espinosa shares the story of Tanya, a girl who suffered trauma starting at a young age and continually ran away from home to escape the cycle of abuse she was trapped in. Her time homeless on the streets led her to a juvenile detention facility—something that the author says is not uncommon: “Simply put, behaviors such as running away, breaking curfew, skipping school and possession or use of alcohol places girls at increased risk of entering the juvenile justice system.”
Once in the juvenile justice system, many girls are marked by society as a “bad girl” for not meeting gender role expectations to be, as the author says, “sugar and spice and everything nice.” This “bad girl” image can prevent young girls from seeking the help they need and cause them to continue on a troublesome path, in and out of the system for minor offenses that Pai-Espinosa refers to as cries for help, not criminal behaviors.
These cries for help that result in crime are commonly a means to escape abuse and other traumatic experiences. According to the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, 42 percent of girls in custody reported past physical abuse, 44 percent reported past suicide attempts and 35 percent reported past sexual abuse.
Pai-Espinosa describes how the juvenile justice system can be a harmful intervention, causing more trauma for Tanya and the many other girls like her who need a safe place to recover and heal.
The author believes there are several necessary steps that have the power to eliminate the “bad girl” stigma and shift the treatment of these girls to instead recognize their strength and resiliency and help them get the support they need, including the following:
- “Promote universal assessment for girls and boys involved in the juvenile justice system to better understand their exposure to violence, abuse and neglect.”
- “Advocate that girls in or at risk of entering the juvenile justice system receive gender and culturally responsive, trauma-informed, developmentally appropriate services to heal from the violence and abuse they have experienced.”
- “Push for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act, with a focus on preventing detention for status offenses and the importance of gender-responsive and trauma-informed services.”
- “Endorse and advance the important work of organizations like the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses.”
Pai-Espinosa concludes with a quote from Tanya describing how the support she eventually received was a bridge to a different kind of life for her:
“I had no way of knowing at the time, that self-love would be something that I would have to first learn that I was missing, and then fight like heck to reclaim it in order to be happy … I have come to learn that life and its successes unfold incrementally, so that in each moment we can see some measure of success. Some days this may simply mean that I decide to keep moving forward, on other days, I may have honored my personal truth a little more. Healing does not EVER happen overnight, but incremental success does.”
For more information, read the full story on JJIE.org.
Updated: February 08 2018