Sexual Abuse can lead to Incarceration for Girls

A new report from the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Ms. Foundation for Women reveals a startling look into how the sexual assault of girls can create direct pathways into incarceration. Earlier studies have demonstrated how pervasive sexual assault is in this population: almost half of female rape survivors are under 18, while 15% of sexual assault and rape survivors are under 12. However, this new report explains how early abuse, instead of being addressed with trauma-informed health care and support services, can lead to incarceration and repeated retraumatization, particularly for girls of color.

As the report describes, one of the strongest predictors for incarceration of girls is past abuse. In Oregon’s juvenile justice system, a shocking 93% of girls have a history of sexual or physical abuse, and in South Carolina, 81% report a history of sexual violence. This type of trauma can lead to behaviors that result in incarceration. For example, many girls run away from home to escape abuse, while others engage in nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting or drug use due to untreated trauma symptoms. For some girls, their sexual abuse is the direct cause of their detention: many victims of trafficking under the age of 18 are charged with prostitution, despite being too young to legally consent to sex. Once in jail, these girls lack access to the vital physical and mental health care needed to address the trauma of sexual assault, and in fact, are often retraumatized by being forced into invasive and punitive environments. This problem is particularly severe for girls of color, who make up a disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population. While 33.2 percent of incarcerated girls are black and 3.5% are Native American, these races only make up 14% and 1% of the overall youth population, respectively.

Incarceration can be devastating on the ability of girls and young women to establish economic security and protect themselves from future abuse. One study found that juvenile incarceration makes youth 13% less likely to graduate high school, while another found that in a sample of incarcerated 9th graders, less than 15% completed their high school education after release. Women without high school diplomas are significantly more likely to be unemployed, have lower wages, experience poorer health outcomes and be reliant on public assistance. This is on top of the impact of trauma from sexual assault and incarceration: individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder work fewer hours, have higher rates of unemployment, and are less likely to complete high school or college. Incarcerated youth are also 22% more likely to be reincarcerated again as adults, continuing the cycle of trauma and arrest.

This report paints a grim picture of the links between early sexual assault and incarceration, but it is an important reminder that girls with histories of sexual abuse should be treated as victims rather than criminals. The authors point to a number of policy options that could be valuable tools to protect girls with sexual abuse histories. These include Safe Harbor laws, which provide criminal immunity to underage victims of sex trafficking,  the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires sexual assault screening and appropriate physical and mental health resources for incoming inmates, and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, comprehensive legislation governing juvenile justice practices that has not been reauthorized since 2002. This report can serve as an impetus to ensure that these policies are enacted and enforced across the country, and that our policies for dealing with juvenile offenders focus on helping them recover from trauma instead of victimizing them all over again.

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