What would it take to get all girls out of detention and juvenile justice placement? That’s the goal of the Vera Institute of Justice’s initiative to end girls’ incarceration, which began in New York City and expanded nationwide in August. In July, the initiative released Girls Matter, a toolkit to help juvenile justice systems place gender at the center of their status offense reform efforts.Lindsay Rosenthal, Girls Matter: Centering Gender in Status Offense Reform Efforts (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018).
Through the program, Vera partners with local leaders to examine gender inequities in their systems and develop comprehensive plans to disrupt the unique pathways to incarceration for girls and gender expansive youth.Lindsay Rosenthal, “The Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration,” Vera Institute of Justice.
As of December, six jurisdictions had signed on, including the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Santa Clara, and the states of Hawaii, Maine, and North Dakota.“Vera Institute of Justice Expands New York City Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration Across Country,” press release, (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, August 2, 2018).
The initiative expanded at a moment when momentum is growing around the country to focus on the unique needs of girls, with Los Angeles County recently committing to end the incarceration of pregnant girls as a first step to ending incarceration for all girls.Ibn Safir, “Los Angeles County to End Incarceration of Pregnant Girls,” The Root, December 18, 2018.
As girls’ incarceration came into the spotlight, so did one of its major drivers: sex trafficking. The reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act strengthened core protections for trafficked youth—who are disproportionately girls—recognizing that girls are often imprisoned for actions traceable to their histories of sexual abuse and trafficking.For reauthorization of the JJDPA, see H.R. 6964 (2018). For statistics on the disproportionate arrest of girls for prostitution—76 percent of children arrested for prostitution are girls—see Charles Puzzanchera, Juvenile Arrests 2012 (Washington, DC, OJJDP, 2014), 3. For a discussion of how histories of trafficking and abuse affect girls’ contact with the justice system, see Malika Saada Saar, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal, and Yasmin Vafa, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story (Washington, DC: Georgetown University, 2015). This shift in federal policy reflects changing public sentiment regarding criminalization of victims of sexual violence and trafficking. After public outcry and social media criticism, as well as advocacy from her attorneys, Tennessee granted clemency for Cyntoia Brown—a young woman of color who was convicted and sentenced in 2006 to life in prison after killing the man who bought her for sex while she was a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking and under the forcible control of a pimp.Lilly Dancyger, “Tennessee Governor Considering Clemency for Cyntoia Brown,” Rolling Stone, December 11, 2018. Outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency for Brown in the first week of 2019; she will be released from prison in August 2019, although she still faces 10 years of parole.Mallory Gafas and Tina Burnside, “Cyntoia Brown is Granted Clemency after Serving 15 Years in Prison for Killing Man Who Bought Her for Sex,” CNN, January 8, 2019; and Christine Hauser, “Cyntoia Brown Is Granted Clemency After 15 Years in Prison,” New York Times, January 7, 2019.