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

Reductions in juvenile detentions over the last decade have put ending girls’ incarceration within reach for California, and getting to zero is possible in every county willing to take bold and decisive action to commit to this goal.

This report is the product of a two-year, multidisciplinary, mixed-methods study by Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC) and the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera). The work leading to this report was a community-based research project, including outreach, quantitative data collection, collaborative analysis, and original qualitative data collection in the form of interviews with 50 system-involved women, girls, and gender-expansive young people across the state. YWFC also convened a Community Expert Advisory Council and a Youth Community Expert Advisory Council to guide analyses of quantitative and qualitative data and policy recommendations. For the full report, including a complete methodology, visit [URL TK].

Vera collected data from the Juvenile Court and Probation Statistical System (JCPSS), Juvenile Detention Profile Survey (JDPS), and Monthly Arrest and Citation (MACR) databases to provide a detailed picture of girls’ incarceration across California. YWFC collected original data via interviews of 50 people who have been directly impacted by the criminalization of girls and gender-expansive young people. Reflecting the experiences of incarcerated women and girls, and centering the voices of those most directly impacted in California, this qualitative data illustrates the complexity of experiences women and girls have as they interact with a multitude of systems. Interviewees described:

  • multiple pathways into the system and experiences with criminalization, including punitive responses to low-level offenses, family conflict, abuse, housing instability, school pushout, and probation;
  • the harms of the system, including detention’s failure to meet their basic needs; experiences of verbal, physical, and sexual violence; violence during arrest; and violence in detention; and
  • lasting trauma and mental health impacts.

Interviewees also described community solutions needed to end girls’ incarceration. Young people involved in the system desire healing, therapy, and mentorship; housing, material, and economic support; and empowerment though advocacy and giving back.

Anonymous quotes from these young people describing their experiences and their recommended solutions to end incarceration are included throughout this report.

Most girls continue to be arrested on lower-level charges

Statewide in 2022, 69 percent of girls’ arrests, 71 percent of girls’ probation referrals, and 44 percent of girls’ detention admissions are for misdemeanors and status offenses. These lower-level offenses—which often include charges such as vandalism, simple assault, petty theft, and trespassing—do not pose a significant risk to public safety. Research shows that these types of charges can and should be addressed through community-based services. But a person’s charges do not offer a full picture of their needs and potential, and most girls charged with felonies can also be successfully supported in the community. For example, Vera found that many girls charged with felonies in Santa Clara County received risk assessment scores recommending against detention. In fact, in 2018, more than 150 girls entered Santa Clara County’s Juvenile Hall despite receiving a risk assessment score that indicated detention was unnecessary; two-thirds of these girls had underlying felony charges.

The majority of interviewees described how they first came into contact with law enforcement at home, in school, or at retail stores for minor infractions, including petty theft or parental conflict. These initial interactions were often the catalyst for ongoing involvement with the youth legal system. Lack of social support, such as affordable and safe housing and educational spaces, intersected and overlapped with getting pulled into and stuck in criminal systems.

I got into a physical altercation with my mom and she called the police on me. [But] it was basically self defense—[my mom] was with a guy that liked my little sister and they was doing inappropriate things in the same room as me and my sister.

I got caught stealing at a mall, and I got arrested for it. . . . It was really confusing because I was young, and I've never been to jail. The first experience, the first day, it was really confusing to me. I didn't really know what was going to happen in the jail. . . . I had a really bad first day.

I needed the money at the time . . . instead of going to jail they could have let me off with a warning or helped me with resources.

Charge levels in 2022 girls’ arrests

Charge level

Count

Percent

Felony

1997

31.1

Misdemeanor

4027

62.7

Status offense

402

6.3

Source: MACR 2022.

2022 charge levels by detention

Charge level

All girls’ referrals

Referrals where girls were detained

Count

Percent

Count

Percent

Felony

2493

29.2

768

56.3

Misdemeanor

5572

65.3

444

32.6

Status offense

469

5.5

152

11.1

Total

8534

100.0

1364

100.0

Source: JCPSS 2022.

Ending girls’ incarceration is an urgent matter of race equity

The girls and gender-expansive youth entering California’s youth legal facilities are overwhelmingly youth of color. This is an inequity rooted in a long history of criminalization and harm of girls of color in California—particularly Black, Latina, and Indigenous youth—and highlights the systemic failures that continue to impact girls of color across the state. Latina youth make up the majority of girls’ detention admissions statewide, and together, Black and Latina girls account for more than three-quarters of girls’ detention admissions.

Girls of color are more likely to be detained than their white peers and disparities are particularly stark for Black girls. Black girls make up 24 percent of all girls’ detention admissions despite accounting for only 8 percent of all girls in California.

Girls’ detentions and girls’ statewide population, by race (2022)
Source: JCPSS and U.S. Department of Justice, OJJDP EZAPOP Note: 2020 is the most recent year data is available for the statewide population of girls in California
Girls’ arrests and detentions have declined dramatically, putting an end to girls’ incarceration well within reach

Over the past decade, California has taken significant strides to reform its juvenile legal system, working to reduce the prevalence of arrest and detention while simultaneously increasing community-based diversion programming.

From 2012 to 2022, the number of girls’ arrests dropped by 81 percent, slightly outpacing declines in overall juvenile arrests, which declined by 79 percent. In 2022, law enforcement made 26,000 juvenile arrests, including 6,426 arrests of young people who were categorized as girls in the data. Consistent with national trends, arrests of girls make up about 25 percent of overall juvenile arrests.

California juvenile arrests, 1980 – 2022
Source: MACR.

Over the same period, the number of annual girls’ admissions to detention also declined substantially—falling by 72 percent. In 2022, there were only 1,364 girls’ detention admissions across the state, down from 4,924 in 2012. And, as noted, nearly half of those detention admissions were on low-level charges that system stakeholders generally agree pose no serious threat to community safety and should be diverted.

As a result of successful reform efforts, the end of girls’ incarceration in California is well within reach in the near-term for every county in the state. If detentions continue to decline at the same rate, California could hit zero girls’ detentions by 2027.

Girls’ detention admissions statewide, 2012 – 2022
Source: JCPSS.
Detention is close to zero in many counties

In June 2023, 30 of the state’s 58 counties had an average daily population (ADP) of five or fewer girls in custody—low numbers that had held constant since December of 2022. Not surprisingly, the counties with the greatest number of girls in custody are the most populous in the state. Together, the ten counties with the highest ADPs accounted for 60 percent of the statewide ADP in December 2023. This means that continued efforts in just a few counties puts ending girls’ detention closer to reality in California.

But girls’ incarceration is not only a problem in the most populous counties: accounting for population, some less-populous counties have higher average daily population rates per 100,000 girls. For example, between January and June 2023, the counties with the highest average daily population rate per 100,000 girls were Tuolumne (59.9), Madera (30), Yuba (29), Kern (22.7), and Mendocino (22.5) Counties. This is consistent with trends among the adult population, for which arrest and jail incarceration rates are highest outside of large cities.

When tracking the end of girls’ incarceration, it’s important to consider how incarceration is measured. The “daily population” is the number of girls in custody on a given day, and “detention admissions” are the number of individual admissions to a detention facility during a given period (the number of individual girls incarcerated is often fewer because some are detained more than once in a given period). The number of detention admissions is the preferred measure of girls’ incarceration because it better depicts the scale of the issue.

Unfortunately, in California, county-level data for ADP is more current and more routinely updated than annual detention admissions. But despite the important differences in these two types of data, they share one thing in common: ending girls’ incarceration means reducing both numbers to zero.

Girls’ detention rates per 100,000 girls by county (January – June 2023)

Ending girls’ incarceration by supporting survivors of commercial sexual exploitation

By National Youth Law Center

The commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) of children is a primary driver of incarceration for girls and gender-expansive youth, and effective solutions to respond to their needs must be part of California’s plan to get to zero. Although as of 2017, young people can no longer be arrested for “prostitution” in California, youth experiencing CSE continue to interact with the juvenile legal system because of and in spite of their exploitation.

Who are CSE survivors? Young people experiencing CSE are students, siblings, athletes, poets, and leaders in their communities. They have goals and challenges. They are more than their exploitation. Black, Latina/x and Native American girls and gender-expansive youth are overrepresented among those who are exploited due to many of the same historic and present-day racist and sexist policies and practices that lead to their overrepresentation in the child welfare and juvenile legal systems. Youth who are homeless, undocumented, or otherwise disconnected from their communities are also at higher risk of exploitation.

While in the child welfare system, CSE survivors often experience further abuse, more placements, and more absences from placement than youth who have not experienced CSE. The child welfare system’s failure to meet their needs and the resulting instability can compound trauma and create a deep distrust of public systems. Moreover, these earlier system failures can push young people into the juvenile legal system, criminalizing them for behaviors that are manifestations of trauma and unmet needs.

Why are they criminalized and incarcerated? Youth impacted by CSE are criminalized for a variety of reasons, such as for:

  • resorting to activities such as shoplifting to meet their basic needs;

  • defending themselves against traffickers and buyers;

  • getting involved in other illegal activity at the direction of their traffickers and exploiters;

  • violating GPS reporting requirements or running away from placement settings; and

  • violating probation for status offenses or other behaviors related to exploitation or trauma, such as substance use.

Because of the repeated exposure to sexual violence and harm endured by CSE-impacted young people, adults involved in the young person’s life often wish to keep them safe. Legal system actors often improperly rely on incarceration or ongoing probation supervision as a default response to youth whose behaviors are impacted by exploitation when they would not do so for other youth.

Why is incarceration an ineffective response to survivors’ needs? Incarceration and probation supervision of CSE survivors are ineffective because they:

  • punish survivors for having been victimized;

  • result in a loss of agency, further isolation, and a narrower set of options for survivors when they return to their communities;

  • do not address the root causes of behaviors;

  • remove survivors from positive activities and relationships in their communities;

  • expose young people to others who are engaged in illegal activity;

  • expose young people to more harm and abuse in facilities; and

  • attach a criminal record and stigma that make it harder for youth and their families to access services.

What works? Young people who have experienced CSE often share how powerless they feel because the systems that were supposed to help them instead punished, ignored, and stigmatized them. To get to zero incarceration of CSE-impacted girls and gender-expansive youth, solutions should include the following elements:

  • Youth and survivor leadership: those with lived experience, their families, and their communities should drive solutions and responses.

  • Multidisciplinary collaboration: government, community leaders, direct service providers, and directly impacted people must work together.

  • Investment in a continuum of community-based healing services: youth and family programs must be accessible outside of the juvenile legal system.

  • Economic supports: young people and their families need financial assistance to meet their needs.