Acton Institute Powerblog

For Girls, Sexual Abuse Is the Prison Pipeline

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The current debate surrounding overcriminalization and juvenile incarceration is often centered around the male prison population. The debate increasingly overlooks the problems that face young girls caught in the prison pipeline to juvenile detention. New data in the past several years has shown that the prison pipeline for girls often includes a pattern of sexual abuse that is not present in cases involving male delinquents.

A 2015 report published by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found that girls in juvenile detention have a high likelihood of being sexual and physical abuse victims. The reports summarizes new data on the ‘abuse to prison pipeline’ present in the female juvenile justice system. The report found that there is systemic criminalization of victimized girls, often disproportionately girls from minority populations.

Sexual violence against girls is a modern American tragedy, and this sexual abuse is a primary predictor today of a girl’s entrance into a juvenile detention center. Girls that were victims of sex trafficking are often arrested on prostitution charges and put in detention centers to be punished instead of being helped to overcome the trauma of the sex trafficking industry. Ethnic minority girls are increasingly being incarcerated as a result.

For example, African American girls make up 14 percent of the national population and 33 percent of girls detained and committed. Native American, African American, and Hispanic girls have the highest likelihood of being incarcerated among young women. Girls in the juvenile justice system are overwhelming likely to have been victims of sexual or physical abuse – one study cited found that in 93 percent of girls in Oregon’s juvenile detention centers had experience some type of abuse, 76 percent had been abused by the age of 13. According the Georgetown report, a California study in 1998 found that 81 percent of incarcerated girls had been physically or sexually abused. While the results vary greatly in different states the numbers in many states are alarmingly high. Compared to males, the report found that incarcerated girls are 4 times more likely than boys to have experienced abuse.

One of the biggest problems with incarcerating these girls is the juvenile justice system’s woefully inadequate resources for providing the support and treatment many of these girls need, and often exacerbates the trauma they have already experienced. Abused girls need emotional and spiritual counseling. Instead of the getting the help they need, incarcerated girls become trapped in a cycle of abuse and trauma, reaction from trauma that lands them in detention centers, more trauma from incarceration, release, and then possible rearrest. Girls that are incarcerated at a young age have a higher chance of mental health problems (80 percent) than boys (67 percent).

Community transformation, families, and the work of local communities, law enforcement, and churches putting an end to sexual abuse and sex trafficking will do more to end the abuse to prison cycle than adding more money to the welfare programs and juvenile detention programs that are at the epicenter of the problem. The solutions need to come at the root of the problem not at the aftereffects. While a two-parent, morally virtuous family is the best defense against female juvenile incarceration, where that breaks down the church and other faith-based institutions can have a profoundly preventative and restorative role to play when citizens are willing to sacrificially protect girls from the cycles of abuse, neglect, and trauma.

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Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.

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