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How the justice system hurts survivors through the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline”

Today in depressing facts we need to do something about: This new report on the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline,” which cites sexual abuse as one of the greatest predictors of girls’ entrance into the juvenile justice system. 

Not only does the report alert us to a serious problem in sore need of research and reform — it challenges us to think more rigorously, more systemically, and more kindly about cycles of trauma and abuse.

Put out by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Ms. Foundation, and Georgetown’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, the report finds that girls are entering the juvenile justice system more than ever — and not because they are becoming more violent. Rather, increasing enforcement of laws against minor offenses — like misdemeanors and technical violations, as well as violations related to family crises — is landing more girls in jail.

And what are these minor infractions related to? Abuse.

“Research reveals that girls who are sent into the juvenile justice system have typically experienced overwhelmingly high rates of sexual violence,” write the authors.

Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests. More harmful still is the significant risk that the punitive environment will re-trigger girls’ trauma and even subject them to new incidents of sexual victimization, which can exponentially compound the profound harms inflicted by the original abuse.

infographic from the reportAnd like the justice system at large, girls of color and LGBT/gender nonconforming girls are at particular risk. One-third of the girls entering the criminal justice system are Black (compared to 14 percent of the general population). Native American girls are 3.5 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system, but only one percent of the population at large. Meanwhile, one study found that 40 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system are LGBT/gender nonconforming.

A staggeringly high number of these girls have been sexually abused. In one study of the Oregon juvenile justice system, 93 percent of girls had experienced physical or sexual abuse. In a study in California, 40 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system had been raped.

Sexual abuse is also one of the strongest predictors of re-entry into the justice system after release. And behaviors that are often a response to abuse — running away, drug use, and truancy — are also those most likely to lead to girls’ criminalization.

When law enforcement views girls as perpetrators, and when their cases are not dismissed or diverted but sent deeper into the justice system, the cost is twofold: girls’ abusers are shielded from accountability, and the trauma that is the underlying cause of the behavior is not addressed. The choice to punish instead of support sets in motion a cycle of abuse and imprisonment that has harmful consequences for victims of trauma.

Justice-involved girls are frequently re-traumatized by the daily conditions of imprisonment, without adequate physical and psychological care, and at a high risk for reoffending.

Girls who have been sexually trafficked — which is itself a form of ongoing sexual abuse — are also particularly vulnerable to entrance into the juvenile justice system. These girls are criminalized as sex workers — even though they are below the age of legal consent.

What underlying assumptions about violence and victimization make the justice system’s response to trauma so fucked up?

There are lots of different, complicated ideas that lead a society to punish people for their own vulnerability. But one of them is the myth of the perfect victim.

All too often — even if we tell ourselves we don’t — we do hierarchize people’s experience of abuse. It’s relatively easy to internalize the idea that it doesn’t matter what we were wearing or whether we were having sex or what our relationship to our abuser was. But the moment a survivor is labelled a criminal — regardless of why or how — many of us are trained to look away, to label the survivor inconvenient, politically inefficacious. The same happens with survivors who experience a certain kind of abuse or survivors who fight back or survivors who run away from home or survivors who shoplift or survivors who have been incarcerated or survivors who have themselves abused.

This is bullshit.

Most of the girls written about in this report are criminalized for petty, non-violent crimes — survival crimes in the face of trauma. But some people who have been abused (people we know and love; people we love and fear; us) will go on to hurt other people in ways that make us really uncomfortable. Some will be abusive — physically, sexually — themselves. These girls also deserve support and care.

Because when we say that we value all survivors, we really do need to mean all survivors. Not just the survivors people want to see in waiting-room pamphlets or on Law and Order SVU. Not just the survivors who have been lucky enough to get to college. Not just convenient survivors, not just photogenic survivors, not just survivors we like.

Because, as much as the structure of the criminal justice system says otherwise, human beings are not disposable. Girls are not disposable. People who have been hurt are not disposable, and people who hurt others are not disposable, and hurt people who hurt others are least disposable of all.

“The Nature of This Flower Is to Bloom,” writes Alice Walker in the poem included in the beginning of this report. “Against the Elemental Crush…Blooming Gloriously.”

The real, flesh-and-blood girls included in the statistics cited in this report are so goddamn glorious. They are glorious because they are people, and people are glorious. And they are glorious because, if our society could figure out how to actually support survivors of violence — every single one — we could get pretty far in eliminating violence in the first place.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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