Ending the sexual abuse to prison pipeline
By Melissa Casey
Criminal justice reform is a key topic of discussion in 2020 given this year’s multiple incidents of police brutality and their associated worldwide protests. What many people don’t know is not only does the adult criminal justice system need to be reformed, so does the juvenile justice system.
Youth as young as 10-years-old face mental, physical and or sexual abuse while in the juvenile justice system. Many are abused before even entering the system by someone they trust such as family members, friends, coaches or others close to them. Being abused as a child can evoke PTSD and other traumas of the past when children enter the system, and their pain can be exacerbated if they experience any abuse while incarcerated.
Teenage girls typically enter the juvenile justice system through the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. Studies show 86 percent of arrests of teenage girls in Washington, DC are arrested for nonviolent offenses. Teenage girls are arrested for prositution charges, when in reality many are sex trafficking victims.
The sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline occurs among young women who have experienced sexual assault from family members, someone they know and trust, or are sex trafficked and enter into the juvenile system based on not getting the mental health care they need from experiencing something so traumatic at a young age. Girls are 4.4 times more likely to experience sexual assault than boys. Sexual assault and trafficked victims are entered into the juvenile system and often are placed in solitary confinement, which creates a greater mental strain given the sexual abuse they are are still recovering from.
Cherice Hopkins, staff attorney for Rights4Girls, advocates for the rights of teenage girls in the juvenile justice system. Rights4Girls is an organization that advocates for the rights and dignity of young girls to be able to live a life free of violence and exploitation.
“Girls are coming into contact with the system from the abuse and trauma,” Hopkins said. “A lot of the practices can be triggering to survivors of violence.”
When teenage girls enter the system from experiencing something abusive and traumatic, they are not always given the mental health care they need to be able to overcome the abuse they suffered.
In December of 2018, Rights4Girls was able to get the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018 signed into law. The reform act provides improvements and updates to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The organization secured important protection for girls who are entered in the juvenile system, such as a ban on shackling pregnant girls and screening and services for trafficking survivors.
“Being shackled, I don’t think most people would find that to be a pleasant experience, but then again if you’ve experienced violence that could be triggering to have these restrictive tools on your body,” said Hopkins. “The legal system wasn’t created with girls in mind, so whether you’re talking about their physical needs or their programming like emotional mental health needs.”
With the help of T Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, a victim and survivor of sex trafficking and abuse in the juvenile justice system, Rights4Girls launched the No Such Thing campaign. The No Such Thing campaign is a movement to make people understand that there is no such thing as a child prostitute. Over 5,000 times the media has used the term “child prostitute” before the launch of the campaign. Since the launch of the campaign, juvenile prositituion arrests have decreased 80 percent.
While Covid-19 may have put people on hold, it has not stopped Rights4Girls from fighting for young women who have been incarcerated and for young victims of sex trafficking to be released. They are continuing to educate the public about how the juvenile justice system treats teenage girls, as well as working to correct the terms the media use for sex trafficking victims that create a false narrative.