Girls in Justice System Need to Express Themselves; We Need to Hear Them

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girls: Artist fingers with brush, doing artwork

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In a society where those behind bars are unqualifiedly perceived as corrupt and deserving of punishment, “I Am the Voice: Girls’ Reflections from Inside the Juvenile System” reminds us that girls are the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system, largely due to the criminalization of their trauma. In order to create effective and sustainable systems reform, we must center the opinions of justice-involved girls who are the experts on their lived experiences.

The justice system rarely provides girls with an opportunity to express themselves and fails to prioritize their perceptions and ideas. Rights4Girls and the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity published “I Am the Voice” to provide a space for girls to speak for themselves through visual and written work and provide a small window into their experiences with the juvenile justice system. We must hear their stories, recognize their brilliance and respect their perspectives.

Rebecca Burney (headshot), attorney, smiling woman with long brown hair, big glasses, black jacket.

Rebecca Burney

Across the country, girls are entering the justice system for predominantly nonviolent offenses that stem from unaddressed trauma and abuse. Despite studies showing that therapeutic interventions are more efficient in reducing the rates of juvenile recidivism, juvenile offenders are still viewed as aggressive and destined to a life of crime, better left locked away where their influence cannot be felt among the “good kids.” As a result, girls end up repeatedly criminalized and wondering when they crossed the line from child victim to criminal.

The poems, stories and artwork in “I Am the Voice” change this restrictive narrative American culture has internalized. The book serves as a reminder that girls in detention are often vulnerable kids, unable to identify with the criminal label that suddenly defines them.

‘We are not sinners’

Larson Binzer (headshot), legal intern at Rights4Girls, smiling woman with long blonde hair.

Larson Binzer

Many of these girls’ paths to the juvenile justice system were lined with sexual and physical abuse, trafficking, severe poverty, caregivers with addictions, foster care or having adult responsibilities as young children, such as caring for younger siblings or working to support their families financially. The book enlightens even the most doubtful reader as to the hardships marginalized girls — especially girls of color — face leading up to their arrests.

Sexual assault and trafficking are themes interwoven with the stories in “I Am the Voice.” Like many survivors, not all these girls self-identify as victims, specifically of trafficking, but describe situations in which their family members or peers forced them into sex or allowed others to sexually abuse them. In her essay, Kelsea Foster writes, “… how grandpa made it okay for your school janitor to touch you day after day then how that 23 year old at 14 wasn’t just lust it was true love & someone you could trust, but really he used you, your grandpa wasn’t the only one to sexually abuse you.”

For more information on dual status youth, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Dual Status Youth

Many of the girls also talk about how crossing into the juvenile justice system from the child welfare system shaped their lives and experiences, having been in the foster care system starting as young as 3 years old. The girls write about reliving their memories of screaming while being torn from their mothers or when a judge handed them over to a foster family that would argue about what was best for her. It is clear how the trauma of being moved between foster families and torn from their parents has set a foundation of instability in their lives, leading up to their incarcerations.

If we are able to see so clearly how these girls have suffered leading up to their incarceration, yet still “lock them up like dogs in a cage,” what are we telling them about their value in our culture? How can we pretend to want to rehabilitate them to be upstanding citizens when we won’t even listen to the trauma they’ve endured at the hands of the society we will return them to?

National statistics

These stories are not surprising given the statistics in juvenile justice. Girls are becoming more likely to be arrested despite the overall decline in juvenile arrests across the country. Girls in the system are also more likely to have a history of physical and sexual abuse than boys, as well as to suffer from mental health disorders. Some older studies even found that girls are twice as likely to suffer PTSD when exposed to traumatic situations.

Girls, despite making up 29 percent of the juvenile justice system, also comprise 55 percent of runaways and 45 percent of truancy-related arrests. Homeless children are particularly vulnerable to human traffickers, meaning that if they run away from an abusive home life, they are likely targets to be funneled into the sex trade. This exposes them to a host of other arrests, since sex trafficking victims are often arrested for prostitution, drug-related offenses and other crimes stemming from their victimization.

Most of these youths are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes that stem from trauma, violence and instability in their home lives. Yet, by putting them into a system without listening to why they got there, we are thrusting America’s abused daughters into the sexual abuse to prison pipeline. This does nothing but increase their vulnerability to the justice system as adults.

There are organizations across the country doing incredible work to empower young girls trapped in the juvenile justice system through artistic expression, including the Girl’s Focus Program in Minnesota, PACE Center for Girls in Florida, Street Poets Inc. in California and Artistic Noise in Massachusetts, among many others who helped in the collaboration of “I Am the Voice.” Without the support of these programs, the publication would not have come to fruition.

These organizations have recognized the dire need to allow justice system-involved youth a platform to share their stories, both so the girls can begin to heal and also so advocates can learn how to change the system for the better. We must work harder to recognize the value that these resilient young women bring to the advocacy table.

We encourage all detention facilities to implement and facilitate art therapy programs, whether through regular workshops or integrating them into mental health services for children. Ultimately, if we don’t provide girls a chance at expression, rather than teaching them to lock their hardships behind a wall of anger and isolation, we will never take a real step forward in helping young girls out of the juvenile justice system.

It is only by allowing girls to have this platform that we will ever be able to understand the complexity and intersectionality of the problems they have faced leading to juvenile justice system involvement. Because without these girls at the table, we can do no more than guess where the dialogue about their own lives should go. More importantly, we can learn from their strength and resiliency.

Rebecca Burney is an attorney and Equal Justice Works fellow at Rights4Girls, where she focuses on the intersection of female sexual abuse and juvenile justice system involvement in Washington, D.C.

Larson Binzer is a legal intern at Rights4Girls and in her second year at Georgetown Law, focusing on human rights and government. She holds bachelor's degrees in journalism and political science from New York University.

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