5 Things To Know About Latina Girls And The Sexual Abuse-To-Prison Pipeline

credit: Bahaa A. Shawqi

One in three young people arrested is a girl, and while girls make up just 14 percent of youth behind bars, they are the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system. It’s not violent crimes that are sending them to jail in high numbers, either. Oftentimes, the real offense committed is the one that was made against them. In fact, 80 percent of girls locked away in the juvenile system are victims of sexual abuse — and most of them are girls of color, including Latinas.

According to a report by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, the Human Rights Project for Girls the Ms. Foundation for Women, sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ incarceration, and it’s largely due to their methods of coping — truancy, running away and curfew violations — being criminalized. Even more, girls with a history of sexual abuse are particularly vulnerable to sex traffickers. But many jurisdictions view even these victims as perpetrators, and arrest them on prostitution charges. Instead of receiving the help they need to healthily work through their anguish, these young people are thrown into a system that often re-traumatizes them.

The sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline, as it’s called, is cruel and it’s harming our girls. Here are five takeaways from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality’s report.

1. One in three Latina girls in the U.S. is a victim of sexual abuse.

According to the report, one in four girls in the U.S. will experience some form of sexual violence by the age of 18. For Latinas in particular, the stat is one in three. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse found that 35 percent of Latinas experience sexual violence in their youth, most often by relatives or boyfriends, and as many as 44 percent of them did not disclose the abuse to anyone. This means they are coping with the trauma alone.

2. The behaviors of girls who have a history of sexual abuse are largely criminalized.

The most common crimes that put girls behind bars include running away, substance abuse and truancy (skipping school), and these are also the most common ways survivors of abuse subsist. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 46 percent of runaway and homeless youth say they have been physically abused, 38 percent report being emotionally abused and 17 percent note they’ve been sexually abused. Currently, four in five girls in the juvenile system has experienced some form of sexual abuse.

3. The sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts girls of color.

The number of girls behind bars is rising, especially girls of color, who have disproportionate rates of incarceration. Native American girls are locked up at a rate of 179 per 100,000, African American girls at a rate of 123 per 100,000 and Latinas at a rate of 47 per 100,000. By comparison, 37 per 100,000 of non-Hispanic white girls are detained.

4. Incarceration only makes matters worse.

Behind bars, girls lose their already-restricted autonomy. With their movements constricted and their bodies sometimes stripped, juvenile centers often retraumatize victims of sexual abuse. Even more, many don’t provide them with necessary mental health services. One study by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice found that 80 percent of incarcerated girls met the criteria for at least one mental health condition. But services are minimal. According to a nationwide census, only half of youth locked up are in a facility that provides evaluations to all residents, and 88 percent are in centers where counselors are not even licensed.

5. But you can help.

The report strongly calls for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). In the U.S., there isn’t a national juvenile justice system. Instead, there are more than 56 different systems run by states and local governments. With that, policies and procedures vary significantly. The reauthorization of JJDPA would provide federal standards for care, custody and the prevention of victimization. The report also demands greater enforcement of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which ensures that people incarcerated receive immediate care for sexual abuse that occurred before or during their imprisonment, and more adoption of Safe Harbor Laws, which safeguards child victims of sex trafficking from being jailed.


READ: This Is What Abortion Laws Look Like In Latin America

Let us know your thoughts on the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline in the comments.