Girls and the School to Prison Pipeline
Eighty-two percent of women are jailed for nonviolent offenses such as property, drug and public order offenses. The statistics for girls are similar for girls in the juvenile system. Boys tend to be detained for more serious crimes whereas girls are mostly detained for status offenses – violations of rules, which typically can only be committed by underage individuals. Girls involvement in the juvenile justice system have been growing at a disproportionately higher rate at key determination points – i.e. the decision to arrest and detain these young women and the rates are even higher for girls of color. According to the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention this increase over the last two decades of incarceration is not due to girls engaging in criminal activity at a higher rate or their being more violent. The most frequent reasons for detention are truancy, running away, and substance abuse. These three types of behaviors are frequently symptoms of abuse.
So how do girls end up in the justice system in the first place? Many schools today have “zero tolerance” policies and have increased the presence of law enforcement in the schools frequently with school resource officers. Many of these school resource officers are located in schools where there are higher percentages of children of color and/or children from lower income families. Way too many children end up being suspended, expelled or arrested for minor offenses and behaviors. And for girls many of whom deal with a multitude of traumatic experiences including family separation, homelessness, and sexual harassment and violence, they tend to display behaviors that get them in trouble such as running away, truancy, and school failure. Schools with “zero tolerance” policies end up suspending, expelling, or arresting these students for their misbehaviors. The aggressive enforcement of non-serious offenses for girls has been shown to often “be based in part on the perception of girls’ having violated conventional norms and stereotypes of feminine behavior, even when that behavior is caused by trauma”.
Girls aren’t complying with the rules because they are bad or incorrigible. Frequently they are dealing with problems that are unsolvable for them – like being homeless, the inability to comply with school uniform dress code requirements that require spending funds on new clothing, or sexual abuse or harassment – resulting in their acting out behaviors. Many of these girls are afraid to ask for assistance or do not know how to do so, thus becoming more vulnerable and isolated, skipping school, running away and acting out. Girls who are homeless, dealing with poverty, and other trauma are then vulnerable to sex trafficking.
And although laws are changing as a result of the Federal Justice for Trafficking Act of 2015, a number of youth are charged with prostitution instead of being treated and provided services for their victimization thus increasing the cycle of victimization, and further involvement in the criminal justice system.
So what can we do to reduce the school to prison pipeline on a policy basis? As noted by the National Women’s Law Center Let Her Learn Reports we can push policies that:
Frontline – The Problem With “Broken Windows” Policing, July 28.2016
Innocence Lost Working Group. Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: A Fact Sheet March 2010
Malika Saada Saar (Human Rights Project for Girls), Rebecca Epstein (Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality), Lindsay Rosenthal (Ms. Foundation for Women), Yasmin Vafa (Human Rights Project for Girls). The Sexual Abuse To Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story. October 2015
National Women’s Law Center. Let Her Learn Project – survey and reports. 2017
 The Federal Justice for Trafficking Act authorizes the Department of Justice to give preferential treatment in funding community oriented police grants to states that have laws in effect that treat:
(1) treats a minor who has engaged in, or has attempted to engage in, a commercial sex act as a victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons;
(2) discourages or prohibits the charging or prosecution of such individual for a prostitution or sex trafficking offense based on such conduct; and
(3) encourages the diversion of such an individual to appropriate service providers, including child welfare services, victim treatment programs, child advocacy centers, rape crisis centers, or other social services.