Tough Times For Girls In Juvenile Justice System

Oct 24, 2012
Originally published on October 24, 2012 5:30 am

The number of boys locked up for crimes has dropped over the past decade, but the number of young women detained in jails and residential centers has moved in the other direction.

Experts say girls make up the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system, with more than 300,000 arrests and criminal charges every year. A new report by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy says the system isn't doing enough to help those young girls.

Most girls who wind up tangled in the justice system have family problems, trauma or a history of abuse, says Georgetown University professor Peter Edelman, who co-authored the report, "Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls."

More than half of the girls detained these days don't commit big crimes. More often their transgressions are things like skipping school, breaking curfew or running away from home, says Edelman, who has studied justice up close since the 1970s.

"Getting them back into school and getting them back on a path without invoking the sanctions of the juvenile and criminal justice system," Edelman says, "that is so much better in terms of not leaving those wounds and scars and preserving the possibilities for the future."

A Case In Point

Jabriera Handy says she is still living with some of those scars.

Four years ago, Handy was locked up in the Baltimore City Detention Center. Her 69-year-old grandmother had died of a heart attack shortly after they had a fight. Handy was charged with second degree murder in the adult system and spent 11 months in the detention center.

One day, on the way to school behind bars, the jail was put on lockdown because someone had been stabbed to death.

"I was looking, and I saw the man was just laying there with a limp body," she says.

She says they continued on to school like nothing had happened.

"So it wasn't like anybody came to us to talk about what [we had] just seen," she says.

The Georgetown report says no juveniles — girls or boys — belong in adult jails and prisons. It also says prosecutors should never lock up kids on technicalities, like violating probation or other minor offenses.

Criticism Of Report

That doesn't sound right to longtime prosecutor James Backstrom.

"We're talking about kids that are violating curfew laws, being truant from school [and] violating court orders," Backstrom says. "Do we need the authority to pick those kids up? I think we do."

Backstrom, the district attorney in Dakota County, Minn., says not all of those juveniles need to be in detention.

"[But] if you ignore the small issue, you might not get to the big issue before it's too late," he says.

Backstrom says he agrees with Edelman on a key point in the report, that it makes sense to devote resources to kids.

"I've long believed if we're going to reduce crime in America in the long run, we have to start with our kids, with early intervention and prevention efforts," he says.

Handy, who got out two years ago, says she is doing her part. She wants to become a social worker and is visiting girls at a detention center in Maryland to try to listen and help.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go to a different kind of problem, proving difficult to solve. While the number of boys who have been locked up as juvenile offenders dropped over the past decades, the number of girls being detained has moved in the other direction.

Experts say girls make up the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system, with more than 300,000 arrests and criminal charges every year. And a new report says there isn't enough being done to help these girls in the system.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Most girls who wind up tangled in the justice system have family problems, trauma, a history of abuse, says Georgetown University professor Peter Edelman. Edelman, a co-author of the new report, has been studying juvenile justice up close since the 1970s, when he ran a youth unit in New York State.

Over half of the girls who are detained these days don't commit big crimes. It's more like skipping school, breaking curfew, running away from home, Edelman says.

PETER EDELMAN: Getting them back into school and getting them back on a path without invoking the sanctions of the juvenile and criminal justice system. That is so much better in terms of not leaving those wounds and scars and preserving the possibilities for the future.

JOHNSON: Jabriera Handy says she's still living with some of those scars. Four years ago, Handy was locked up in the Baltimore city detention center. Her 69-year-old grandma died of a heart attack shortly after they had a big fight. Handy got charged with second degree murder - in the adult system, and spent 11 months there. One day, on the way to school behind bars, something bad happened, Handy said.

JABRIERA HANDY: So as we went through the tunnel, the jail became on lock down. And we had to just, you know, stand there. We were told to turn around and close our eyes, but in jail you just don't turn around and close your eyes. I was looking and I just saw that the man was just like laying there with a limp body.

JOHNSON: The man had been stabbed to death. And after that...

HANDY: Well, they took us to school after that. Like nothing happened. So it wasn't like anybody came to us to talk about, you know, what you just seen, do you want to talk about it, how do you feel about the situation? No.

JOHNSON: The report says no juveniles, girls or boys, belong in adult jails and prisons. And it says prosecutors should never lock up kids on technicalities, for violating probation or other minor offenses.

That doesn't sound right to longtime prosecutor James Backstrom.

JAMES BACKSTROM: We're talking about kids that are violating curfew laws, are truant from school, violating court orders. Do we need the authority to pick those kids up? I think we do.

JOHNSON: Backstrom is the district attorney in Dakota County, Minnesota. He says not all of those juveniles need to be in detention. But...

BACKSTROM: If you ignore the small issues, you might not get to the big issue before it's too late.

JOHNSON: Backstrom says he agrees with Edelman on a key point in the report - it makes a lot of sense to devote resources to kids.

BACKSTROM: I've long believed if we're going to reduce crime in America in the long run, we need to start with our kids, with early intervention and prevention efforts.

JOHNSON: Jabriera Handy, who got out two years ago, says she's doing her part. She wants to become a social worker. And she's been visiting girls at a detention center in Maryland to try to listen and help.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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