Youth Justice


I’m grateful for a powerful new book, Girls In Justice by artist Richard Ross, a follow up to his moving earlier Juvenile In Justice, which combines Ross’s photographs of girls in the juvenile justice system with interviews he gathered from over 250 detention facilities across the United States. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the deeply disturbing photographs speak volumes. Ross uses the power of photography to make visible the hidden and harsh world of girls in detention. These heartwrenching images coupled with the girls’ ages and life stories should move us to confront the cruel and unjust juvenile justice system in our nation. These girls are ours: our neighbors, our children’s classmates, our daughters and granddaughters, sisters, cousins, and nieces — and, for some young children, our mothers. Girls In Justice begs the questions—why are so many girls, especially girls of color, confined in our nation’s detention facilities, and what are we as a society going to do about it?

We must all work tirelessly to give hope and a fair chance to these girls and all children by promoting policies, programs, and supports that help them and their families, especially those most at risk. We must combat systemic problems that contribute to family and community dysfunction and wreak havoc on developing children including girls; we must dig beneath the surface and examine the root cause of girls’ “offenses” and why injustice saps the hopes of so many young lives on our watch.

In 2013, one in five girls in the United States was poor, and girls of color were disproportionately poor. From birth to young adulthood, children — especially poor children and children of color — encounter multiple and cumulative risk factors that often result in their being funneled into the prison pipeline through the juvenile and criminal justice systems and locked up behind bars. Such massive incarceration is sentencing millions of children to social and economic death. The pipeline to prison is lodged at the intersection of poverty and race and is intolerable in a professed society of opportunity. In 2007, the Children’s Defense Fund launched the Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crusade to confront youth incarceration and the factors driving it and propose solutions to replace it with a pipeline to college and career. While twice as many boys as girls are arrested, girls are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system. As girls rock the cradle they rock the future, and we must pay attention to both girls and boys to ensure the development of healthy families.

Girls of color and poor girls face special challenges before they enter the juvenile justice system, during their confinement, and when they return to their communities after release. At the front end, racial disparities and the lack of appropriate treatment and support that run through every major child-serving system negatively impact their life chances by pushing more children into juvenile detention and adult prison. These include limited health and mental health care; lack of quality early childhood support experiences (including home visiting, Early Head Start and Head Start, child care, preschool, and kindergarten); children languishing in foster care waiting for permanent families and shunted through multiple placements; and failing schools with harsh zero tolerance discipline policies, mostly for nonviolent offenses, that suspend, expel, and discourage children who then too often drop out and do not graduate. Too little effort is made to divert girls from the juvenile justice system despite the existence of successful evidence-based programs.

Girls in the system often encounter a unique set of challenges. Almost three quarters of them have been sexually or physically abused. Most are arrested for nonviolent offenses such as truancy, running away, or alcohol and substance use which can often be linked to severe abuse or neglect. These nonviolent offenses, or status offenses, would not be considered offenses for an adult. Poverty has an impact: although the trauma of sexual violence and abuse affects many girls, poor girls often lack adequate supports to keep them from juvenile detention.

Victimized girls often face more trauma and stigmatization by being held in juvenile detention facilities instead of diverted to appropriate community-based alternatives. Whether confinement is temporary or longer term, programs and personnel are often not equipped to deal with their unique needs and sometimes exacerbate the trauma. Reports are rampant of confined girls being emotionally, physically, and sexually abused, isolated, separated from their babies, unable to visit their family members regularly, and humiliated through common practices like pat downs. Detention centers need more comprehensive, gender-responsive, trauma-informed, culturally-relevant services for girls.

After release, girls, many of whom may already have been disconnected from their families and communities, need help through education, employment, and family and community support including programs to strengthen their families and assure them access to health and mental health services. Effective reentry plans should include school reenrollment, housing, job training, case management, and mentoring. All help reduce recidivism. We should all feel ashamed as the girls in this book talk about reentering detention multiple times and how these are generational patterns. This revolving door of individual and family confinement must end — now.

It is way past time for every adult to take responsibility for reducing the number of girls and boys behind bars through prevention and diversion programs and community supports both before and after detention. And it is way past time for adults of every race and income group to break our silence about the pervasive breakdown of moral, family, community and national values, to place our children first in our lives, to rebuild family and community, to model the behavior we want our children to learn, and to never give up on any child. We do not have a “child and youth problem” in America, but we have a profound adult problem. It is time for adults to address it and to give all of our children true justice: hope, opportunity, and love.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.