The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline

Aug 22nd, 1970

By Rebecca Turner, Esq. MCASA Inmate PREA Services Liaison/Staff Attorney A recent report shed a startling new light on yet another consequence faced by girls who are sexually abused: incarceration. The “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”, released in July by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women, exposes the criminalization of girls (especially girls of color) who have been sexually and physically abused.  Juvenile detention facilities have traditionally been ill-equipped to treat these girls, and often re-trigger their underlying trauma. With their trauma exacerbated by this experience, they end up back in the juvenile justice system or enter the adult criminal justice system after their release. Even worse, in many cases, these girls are being sent into the juvenile justice system as a result of their victimization: the most common symptoms of abuse such as running away, substance abuse, and truancy, are also the most common crimes for which girls are arrested. While the numbers vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the statistics are staggering. A multistate study found that 39% of girls in juvenile justice systems had been sexually assaulted and/or raped. In many states this number is significantly higher: in South Carolina, 81% had been sexually abused; in Oregon, 93% had been physically or sexually abused (63% were victims of physical and sexual abuse); and in Florida, 84% had been victims of family violence. The report also found that the system itself frequently overlooks this context of abuse when determining whether to arrest or charge a girl, often with a minor offense. All too frequently, “law enforcement views girls as perpetrators, and when their cases are not dismissed or diverted but sent deeper into the justice system, the cost is twofold: girls’ abusers are shielded from accountability, and the trauma that is the underlying cause of the behavior is not addressed. The choice to punish instead of support sets in motion a cycle of abuse and imprisonment that has harmful consequences for victims of trauma.”[1] In addition to the toll on these girls and their long-term well-being, the policies that perpetuate this cycle also carry a heavy economic toll for communities. This article will focus on some of the economic concerns built into our juvenile justice system and the trauma it creates: how much money do we spend on these destructive policies, and why? What is the cost to communities and survivors? Incarceration is an expensive policy decision. According to recent data collected by the Justice Policy Institute, the costs of the most expensive confinement option for a young person out of his or her home average $401 per day. Maryland reported the second highest cost of juvenile confinement out of the 47 reporting states – a cost per day of $809.[2] Research shows that community based programs for youth are much more cost effective than incarceration and lead to better public safety outcomes. These community-based programs vary in intensity and reach, but some programs have been shown to yield up to $13 in benefits to public safety for every dollar spent.  In addition to the benefits to the community, the programs themselves cost less than incarceration. One report found that even an intensive community-based program that works to empower youth and families with complex needs to achieve community connection and personal stability costs on average $75/day.[3] Other reports show similar findings, calculating average costs to be $30-$80/youth, with an average of $59/ day.[4] One reason for continued heavy use of juvenile confinement may be that it is big business. Private facilities hold about 31% of juvenile offenders in residential placement, and account for more than 50% of all youth correctional facilities.[5]  These companies pay millions of dollars each year to maintain their contracts and their influence. Since 1989, the two largest private corrections companies have spent $25 million on lobbying and $10 million on campaign contributions.[6] For many reasons, the extensive use of private for-profit facilities undermines public safety goals. Private for-profit prisons’ business models require high incarceration and recidivism rates for kids so that they can continue to fill beds in their facilities.[7] This model incentivizes more incarceration and has led to several scandals, including the so-called “Kids for Cash” scandal, where two Pennsylvania judges received $2.6 million in kickbacks from for-profit juvenile detention centers for sending more kids to the facilities and sentencing those kids to unusually long terms of confinement. Private prison corporations, in order to maximize revenue, also tend to pay lower wages to facility staff, invest less in staff training and supervision, and offer fewer services. Furthermore, these companies, because they are not government entities, are often subject to less public oversight. They are often not subject to records requests and frequently cannot be sued under the same legal framework as a government entity, even though they are performing a government function. This frequently leads to unsafe conditions, such as those found at two private for-profit facilities that the U.S. Department of Justice determined were among those with highest rates of sexual victimization of youth of all juvenile facilities in the U.S. The risk of being revictimized once in custody, in addition to its devastating effect on well-being, also causes serious economic damage to incarcerated youth. While no economic model can fully capture the impact of this kind of suffering, the numbers are striking. The Justice Policy Institute used the 2012 DOJ sexual victimization survey to monetize the impact of sexual assaults on youth confined in state‐controlled juvenile facilities. Using the figure from that survey, 4.8 percent of confined youth were subjected to non‐consensual sexual activities. Based on what the DOJ and others have estimated to be the quantifiable costs of sexual assault (including medical and mental health costs, lower educational attainment, lost future wages, etc.), the Justice Policy Institute estimated the costs to abused juveniles in confinement range between $901 million and $1.37 billion in the year 2011.[8] This figure only takes into account abuse that occurs once inside the facility  and does not include the cost of pre-existing trauma. Given that the nature of incarceration only retriggers and exacerbates existing trauma, along with potentially increasing the risk of future abuse, policies that encourage more incarceration for traumatized girls, and indeed for youth generally, should be avoided. Research illustrates that community programs are more effective in bettering public safety outcomes and are more cost-effective. Girls who end up in the juvenile justice system for behaving in ways consistent with the trauma of abuse should not be punished as criminals but should be given access to community programs that better their lives and serve them as survivors. For girls who are incarcerated, the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline report underscores the importance of access to rape crisis and recovery center services, as mandated in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) guidelines. These services are crucial for helping these girls deal with their prior trauma, the trauma and retriggering involved in detention settings, and, hopefully, for avoiding future incarceration.     [1] Human Rights Project for Girls, Ms. Foundation for Women, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story.” July 2015. [2]  Justice Policy Institute “The Tip of the Iceberg: What Taxpayers Pay to Incarcerate Youth.” March 2015. [3] Fazal, S. “Safely Home: Reducing youth incarceration and achieving positive youth outcomes for high and complex need youth through effective community-based programs” 2014. Youth Advocate Programs Policy & Advocacy Center. [4] National Juvenile Justice Network, “Community-Based Supervision: Increased Public Safety, Decreased Expenditures” November 2014. [5] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “Juveniles in Residential Placement, 2010” June 2013. [6] Cohen, Michael. "How For-profit Prisons Have Become the Biggest Lobby No One Is Talking about." Washington Post, April 28, 2015 [7] American Civil Liberties Union “Perhaps the Saddest Profit Motive Ever” November 2013. [8] Justice Policy Institute "Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Detention." December 2014.
This article was featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Frontline.  

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