Freedom and Justice: Ending the Incarceration of Girls and Gender-Expansive Youth in California
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Freedom and Justice:
Ending the Incarceration of Girls and Gender-Expansive Youth in California

Introduction


In 2021, California incarcerated more than 1,400 young people in girls’ juvenile detention units. Thousands more were arrested and placed on probation. The girls and gender-expansive youth in these facilities are disproportionately living in poverty and youth of color—an inequity rooted in a long history of criminalization, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and Latina/x girls and gender-expansive youth. As many as 51 percent of girls and gender-expansive youth incarcerated in California identify as lesbian, bisexual, queer, gender-nonconforming, or trans.[]Angela Irvine, Shannan Wilber, and Aisha Canfield, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, and/or Gender Nonconforming and Transgender Girls and Boys in the California Juvenile Justice System: A Practice Guide (Oakland, CA: Impact Justice and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2017), 5.

Evidence shows that girls and gender-expansive youth face distinct experiences and pathways into the youth legal system and, as a result, have unique needs from preventive and diversionary programs. The challenges that most commonly drive the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth—such as sexual abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, family conflict, and housing instability—are more effectively addressed through gender-responsive programs that are lacking in many communities in California.[] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Girls and the Juvenile Justice System Policy Guidance (Washington, DC: OJJDP, 2015); Erin Espinosa, “Research Points to Gender Inequities for Justice-Involved Youth,” Evident Change, March 5, 2020; Erin M. Espinosa and Jon R. Sorenson, “The Influence of Gender and Traumatic Experiences on Length of Time Served in Juvenile Justice Settings,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 43, no. 2 (2015), 187–203; Erin M. Espinosa, Jon R. Sorensen, and Molly A. Lopez, “Youth Pathways to Placement: The Influence of Gender, Mental Health Need, and Trauma on Confinement in the Juvenile Justice System,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 42, no. 12 (2013), 1824–1836; and American Bar Association and National Bar Association, “Justice by Gender: The Lack of Appropriate Prevention, Diversion and Treatment Alternatives for Girls in the Justice System,” William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law 73, no. 9 (2002), 73–97. Indeed, decisions to incarcerate girls and gender-expansive youth are overwhelmingly driven by efforts to keep them safe or provide access to services that should be available to all young people in the community. But locking them up and subjecting them to unrealistic and excessive conditions of probation supervision only violates young people’s dignity, exposes them to more harm, and exacerbates the very issues that brought them to court in the first place.[] For girls and gender-expansive youth, who often enter the system while actively in crisis or reacting to trauma, removing their agency and self-determination by mandating them to specific services or subjecting them to strict conditions of probation is harmful and counterproductive. And, perversely, girls continue to experience high rates of sexual abuse and other harm in the very facilities purporting to protect them.

For decades, directly impacted young people have shined a light on solutions that can help transform communities and end incarceration—solutions that target the root causes of incarceration for young people as well as the structural inequities that criminalize girls and gender-expansive youth, particularly those of color. These solutions call for policymakers to imagine what California could look like if, instead of investing in incarceration, it invested in the healing, well-being, and freedom of girls and gender-expansive youth, especially those of color and those living in poverty. Working together, local communities and state leaders can make policy and practice changes and invest in community-based programming to end the incarceration and criminalization of girls and gender-expansive youth.

I need to be in spaces that are healthy and that are healing, as well as educational so that I can be sure to be able to help my community and look to my elders for their guidance, what worked, what didn't and what we can implement here. We're about a half a century behind and that's so sad. We're in the golden state of California, but yet we're so far behind.

Community Partner

A Partnership between the Vera Institute of Justice and Young Women’s Freedom Center

Footnotes
  1. Angela Irvine, Shannan Wilber, and Aisha Canfield, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, and/or Gender Nonconforming and Transgender Girls and Boys in the California Juvenile Justice System: A Practice Guide (Oakland, CA: Impact Justice and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2017), 5.
  2. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Girls and the Juvenile Justice System Policy Guidance (Washington, DC: OJJDP, 2015); Erin Espinosa, “Research Points to Gender Inequities for Justice-Involved Youth,” Evident Change, March 5, 2020; Erin M. Espinosa and Jon R. Sorenson, “The Influence of Gender and Traumatic Experiences on Length of Time Served in Juvenile Justice Settings,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 43, no. 2 (2015), 187–203; Erin M. Espinosa, Jon R. Sorensen, and Molly A. Lopez, “Youth Pathways to Placement: The Influence of Gender, Mental Health Need, and Trauma on Confinement in the Juvenile Justice System,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 42, no. 12 (2013), 1824–1836; and American Bar Association and National Bar Association, “Justice by Gender: The Lack of Appropriate Prevention, Diversion and Treatment Alternatives for Girls in the Justice System,” William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law 73, no. 9 (2002), 73–97.
  3. Richard A. Mendel, Transforming Juvenile Probation: A Vision for Getting It Right (Baltimore: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2018).
  4. Malika Saada Saar, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal, et al., The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story (Washington, DC: Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and Ms. Foundation for Women, 2015).
  5. Maureen Washburn and Renee Menart, Unmet Promises: Continued Violence and Neglect in California’s Division of Juvenile Justice (San Francisco: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice 2019), 38-42. See also I. India Thusi, “Girls, Assaulted,” Northwestern University Law Review 116, no. 4 (2022), 911–962; Jeremy Loundenback, “Lawsuit Details a Dozen Years of Sexual Abuse Inside Now Closed L.A. Youth Detention Facility,” The Imprint, March 11, 2022; Celeste Fremon, “Despite Allegations of Sexual Assaults on Kids by Staff, La Probation Youth Facilities Are Still Failing Federal PREA Standards,” Witness LA, April 23, 2019; James Queally, “L.A. County Probation Officer Pleads Guilty to Assaulting Inmates at a Juvenile Hall,” Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2017; Jessica Chia, “Probation Counselor Arrested for Sexually Assaulting Two Teenagers in Juvenile Detention,” New York Daily News, September 30, 2017.
  6. Sister Warriors Action Fund, “Freedom 2030”; Alezandra Melendrez and Young Women’s Freedom Center, A Radical Model for Decriminalization: Centering the Lives of San Francisco System-Involved Cis and Trans Young Women, Trans Men and Young Men, and Gender-Expansive Youth and Adults – A Participatory and Decolonizing Model (San Francisco: YWFC, 2019); Free Our Kids Coalition, “Reimagine Youth Justice”; California Alliance Youth & Community Justice “Mission and Platform”; and Alliance for Girls, Radical Visions of Safety (Oakland, CA: Alliance for Girls, 2021).
  7. The quotes used in this report come from qualitative research interviews YWFC conducted with system-impacted people. Interviewee names are omitted to protect confidentiality.