Our Vision and Mission

To ensure freedom and justice for all kids, systems must be responsive to how gender and sexism intersect with racism to drive youth incarceration.

The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) believes that we can end the incarceration of youth on the girls’ side of the juvenile justice system by building stronger, safer, and more equitable communities where girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming (LGB/TGNC or “gender expansive”) youth—particularly youth of color—are no longer criminalized for the violence and discrimination they face.

Through its Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration, Vera is zeroing out the country’s confinement of girls within 10 years. We are inspiring and partnering with jurisdictions to build new reforms and programs that will better support the safety and well-being of girls and gender expansive youth in their communities, address the root causes of their incarceration, and permanently close the doors to girls’ juvenile detention and placement facilities.

Getting to Zero

Getting to zero girls in 10 years is ambitious but achievable. Juvenile justice reforms have already reduced the annual number of girls’ detentions to less than 46,000 nationwide.Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement,” https://www.ojjdp.gov/research/CJRP.html. In 2015, most states had fewer than 150 girls in long-term placement on a given day—many had fewer than 50.Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement," https://www.ojjdp.gov/research/CJRP.html. These reductions occurred even though the juvenile justice field has historically held a sharp focus on boys and left girls and gender expansive youth out of most reform discussions and investments.

The girls who remain in the nation’s juvenile justice systems do not belong there. Most have been locked up as a means to protect their safety or to address needs that have gone unmet in the community. Incarceration for these reasons cuts against best practices, and the girls who experience the harms of this confinement are disproportionately girls of color, LGB/TGNC, poor, in foster care, survivors of violence (especially family and sexual violence), and victims of sex trafficking.Lindsay Rosenthal, Girls Matter: Centering Gender in Status Offense Reforms, (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), https://www.vera.org/girls-matter; Francine T. Sherman and Annie Balck, Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls (Portland, OR: National Crittenton Foundation, 2015), 31-32; Malika Saada Saar, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal, and Yasmin Vafa, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story (Washington, DC: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2015), 8-9 (discussing studies in South Carolina and California), https://perma.cc/V6K7-6VNQ; and Lindsay Rosenthal, “The Road to Freedom for Cyntoia Brown Was Much Longer Than 15 Years,” Vera Institute of Justice, March 5, 2019, https://www.vera.org/blog/the-road-to-freedom-for-cyntoia-brown-was-much-longer-than-15-years. The juvenile justice system is neither intended nor able to provide the long-term solutions needed to ensure the well-being and safety that they deserve.

The country is primed for change. #MeToo and #TimesUp have brought movements for gender and racial justice to the fore of national politics. Campaigns focused on accessing justice, safety, and freedom for girls and gender expansive youth of color have created momentum for progress. And, after decades of struggling with this smaller but unique population of incarcerated youth, justice and other child-serving systems are finally championing reform for girls and seeking help to better serve them.

Vera’s national Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration is advancing gender and race equity by centering girls and gender expansive youth of color in juvenile justice reform discussions across the country and promoting gender-responsive systems change with the ultimate goal of getting to zero.

Our National 10-Year Strategy

We aim to end the incarceration of youth on the girls’ side of the nation’s juvenile justice systems by 2029 through a three-pronged approach.

  1. Target the top incarcerators. Drive down numbers by targeting the top eight states that together account for more than 50 percent of the nation’s incarceration of girls.
  2. Target the lowest incarcerators. Inspire the collective imagination of the reform community by targeting states with exceptionally low numbers of girls that can get to zero quickly.
  3. Devise new solutions. Create an Ending Girls’ Incarceration Innovation Network that can incubate solutions to some of the most intractable problems in girls’ incarceration to benefit the field. Pilot initiatives that employ our learning and test new approaches to these long-standing challenges.

Within each of these efforts, Vera propels justice actors to divert girls and decline to arrest, prosecute, or confine them, while also supporting strategic reforms and initiatives in other public systems that must address the root causes of girls’ incarceration.

Ending Girls' Incarceration

This map shows the local and state-wide jurisdictions across the country that are currently working with Vera to end girls' incarceration—including our Innovation Network sites and our "Getting to Zero" sites, where Vera provides on-the-ground technical assistance.

Our Approach for Getting to Zero Sites

In each Getting to Zero Site, Vera partners with local and state government officials to drive gender-responsive, cross-systems change that embraces the perspectives of the youth, advocates, and services providers closest to the challenges at hand.

We convene a multi-agency workgroup of leadership from key juvenile justice and child-serving agencies and organizations, and we guide them in a deep examination of how and why youth enter girls’ juvenile justice facilities; how racial and gender biases impact each decision point; and how various systems fall short in serving girls and gender expansive youth before and during their system involvement. This entails:

  • Using local data and information to map girls’ pathways into and through the juvenile justice system, including determining the impact of policies/practices and assessing gender and racial equity across key decision points
  • Assessing the continuum of services for girls and gender expansive youth to locate gaps in the infrastructure necessary to support their well-being and safety within their communities

With this information, Vera supports the workgroup in developing and implementing strategic plans to end girls’ incarceration across their jurisdiction.

Our Values

As we partner with systems and community leadership to create change for girls and gender expansive youth, our efforts are rooted in these core values:

  • Justice and Equity: The right to equitable access to resources within their communities, as well as equal protection of the law. Public systems, families and communities are accountable to youth, regardless of identities.
  • Self Determination and Freedom: The right to self-determination—to be treated with dignity and respect, and to be valued as experts in their own lives. Gender-responsive reform means recognizing girls’ resistance as strength, celebrating their power, and promoting their freedom.
  • Safety and Safe Spaces: The right to grow up in places where they feel safe, where they are free from emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and other threats to their safety. Systems must focus efforts on addressing the harm girls and gender expansive youth experience, rather than girls’ defenses against harm.
  • Childhood and Adolescence: The right to a healthy and supported childhood and adolescence. This includes the freedom to develop, experience, and express their identity and sexuality without judgment or consequence, as well as their right to love and be loved, to have meaningful and lasting connections with family, friends, and community.