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Plugging up the ‘pipeline to prison’ for women and girls of color


A crisis is brewing and having a dramatic impact in our homes and our communities. Between 1980 and 2010, women were the fastest growing population of prisoners. Girls made up the  fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system. Women and girls of color are being incarcerated at higher rates than ever, but they are not committing more violent crimes.

Instead, more and more women and girls of color are being arrested for committing nonviolent crimes like truancy, running away and substance abuse. These behaviors are often ways to cope with or escape from bad foster homes, violent relationships or forced prostitution. Unfortunately, our current system rarely screens for sex trafficking, trauma and abuse. As a result, our girls and women of color are being punished and incarcerated for their experiences of sexual and physical abuse.

Far too many people in South Los Angeles have directly felt the impact of the dramatic rise in the incarceration of women and girls. That’s why on Saturday, Aug. 22, I am hosting a town hall entitled “Girls and Women of Color: The Pipeline to Prison” to address this critical issue. You are invited to come share your thoughts on what Congress should do to help the thousands of women and girls in our criminal justice system. The town hall will feature guests from Human Rights Project for Girls, an organization working to improve juvenile justice here in Los Angeles and around the country. They will explain how our current system is failing our girls and propose solutions for how we can stop the pipeline-to-prison phenomenon.

Earlier this summer, Human Rights Project for Girls joined the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Ms. Foundation for Women to create a comprehensive report detailing how our girls of color are being arrested and incarcerated as a result of abuse. The authors of this study found that here in California as many as 81 percent of girls in our juvenile justice system were victims of sexual or physical abuse. Although these girls are victims of serious trauma, our system fails to treat the trauma and acts as though they are just bad girls who should be punished for acting out.

Studies show that abuse continues to play a major role for adult women who are incarcerated. Some estimates state that 92 percent of all women in California prisons have been battered and abused in their lifetimes. Sexual abuse, in particular, wreaks havoc on girls and women’s lives and often leads to incarceration. A history of sexual abuse is one of the main predictors of a whether a girl will be in detention, and it is the key predictor of whether a girl will end up back behind bars once she is released from juvenile detention.

Child sex trafficking is a form of child abuse, but when poor girls of color are bought and sold for sex, they are arrested for prostitution. The FBI reports that Black girls make up 59 percent of all prostitution-related arrests under the age of 18 in the United States. There should be no such thing as a child prostitute in our system. Criminalization is the last thing that a victim of such terrible sexual abuse needs.

As Congress begins to seriously discuss reforms to our nation’s criminal justice system, it is more important than ever that the voices of women and girls are not excluded from this conversation. It is unacceptable that our policies assume that all incarcerated people fit into one mold when the intersections of race, gender and poverty dramatically impact how people enter and experience our criminal justice system. That’s why I am working on legislation to alter policies around our juvenile justice system to change how girls are screened before they enter juvenile detention. We need to work harder to identify victims of trauma and abuse before they are traumatized again by their experience in detention.

What are your solutions to this problem? Come tell me on Saturday, Aug. 22 from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the Crenshaw Christian Center, 7901 S. Vermont Ave. I look forward to working together to find solutions for women and girls in the criminal justice system. It is time for criminal justice policies to do what they are meant to do: Help not hurt our victims of abuse.

Karen Bass represents California’s 37th Congressional District, which includes South Los Angeles and Culver City.

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