Forty-one thousand girls and gender expansive youth are detained each year and many are held in facilities that mirror adult jails—kept away from their families and communities for months or even years. They are routinely incarcerated for reasons that directly contradict decades of best practice—such as to punish noncriminal violations like skipping school, violating curfew, or for their own safety. In fact, if the country stopped incarcerating children for misdemeanors and low-level violations, we could reduce girls’ incarceration by more than 80 percent, and many communities would get to zero overnight.

We know incarceration is harmful and does not address the underlying causes of girls’ incarceration, which include the aftermath of trauma, violence, and racialized gender discrimination. Instead of addressing these needs, systems often see their role as fixing “broken girls.” Vera’s Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration (EGI) is committed to ending the incarceration of youth on the girls’ side of the juvenile justice system in the United States by 2030 by changing the goal to “fixing broken systems that fail to recognize or support the potential of girls and gender expansive youth of color.” Instead of incarceration, we advocate for communities to invest in holistic solutions that advance freedom and healing—taking meaningful steps to realize fundamental rights to safety, well-being, and education.

In New York City, Santa Clara County, Hawai`i, and Maine, EGI works in partnership with government officials, community organizations, and coalitions of directly impacted youth to implement programs and policies that promote the safety and well-being of girls and gender expansive youth and make systemic changes that aim to address the root causes of their incarceration.

In Santa Clara County, for example, Vera’s diagnostic assessment showed the ways that concerns about a person’s safety and a lack of housing were driving decisions to confine girls and gender expansive youth. As part of a multisystem effort to prevent these so-called “safety confinements,” the board of supervisors passed a referral, or a request for information, requiring probation to work with Vera to produce recommendations for temporary housing solutions to prevent girls and gender expansive youth from being confined in detention while longer term housing solutions are found for them. Vera’s assessment also highlighted how experiences of trauma, abuse, and marginalization are tightly woven together with economic opportunities for girls and gender expansive youth. Earlier this year, the county approved a pilot program to provide up to $1,000 per month in economic support to young people at risk of commercial sexual exploitation or sexual violence.

In addition, the county received a $1 million youth reinvestment grant from the state of California to focus on diversion for girls and gender expansive youth. The majority of the funding flowed directly to our close partners at the Young Women’s Freedom Center—an organization led by formerly incarcerated women, girls, and gender expansive people—to operate their national best-practice gender-responsive model in San Jose. In 2021, Santa Clara County had consistent stretches of time with zero girls in detention. This summer, the average daily population for the girls’ side of detention was one—and for the girls’ side of secure placement, it was zero.

Based on this success, countries throughout California are beginning to follow Santa Clara’s lead. Santa Clara County Juvenile Justice Gender Responsive Task Force co-hosted a convening with Vera bringing together system leaders from across the Bay Area to discuss a regional approach to ending girls’ incarceration, sharing promising practices from local work, and identifying opportunities for cross-county collaboration.

Vera by the Numbers: Ending Girls’ Incarceration

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