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Majority of girls prosecuted, sentenced as adults faced abuse: Survey

A majority of girls who are prosecuted as adults in the U.S. have experienced some form of abuse or victimization prior to their system involvement, according to a new report.

Survey results, published this week by Human Rights for Kids (HRFK), found more than 90 percent of the women incarcerated since childhood experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACE), such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse. More than 92 percent of survey respondents said they experienced a parent or household adult often swearing at them, insulting them, humiliating them or acting in a way that made them afraid they might be physically hurt. 

Roughly 84 percent reported that a parent or adult in their household often pushed, grabbed, slapped or threw something at them hard enough to leave marks, per the survey. Just less than 85 percent also said they had been touched, fondled or forced into intercourse with an adult at least five years older than them. 

Many of the women also reported feeling neglected growing up. Nearly 58 percent said they often felt they didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, had no one to protect them or their parents were too drunk or high to take care of them, the survey found.

“The women profiled in this report simply wanted to feel safe as little girls,” said Sara Kruzan, Stoneleigh Fellow with HRFK. “However, so many of them shared about how they felt unprotected, ignored, and disposable prior to and during their incarceration.”

“Girls have a basic human right to be free from violence, shame, and fear no matter what they’ve done,” Kruzan continued. “I hope that the voices of these women and what they’ve experienced will be a wake up call for our country and lead to a day where we focus on healing instead of incarcerating traumatized girls.”

More than half of the women incarcerated since childhood are in four states: 25 percent are in Texas, 10 percent in Florida, 9 percent in California and the remaining 7 percent are in Georgia. 

The incarceration rate of girls follows what is seen in adult prison population rates. Girls of color make up 60 percent of women who have been incarcerated since childhood. More than 20 percent of girls convicted in adult court are also serving life sentences. 

“The findings in this report indicate systemic discrimination against girls of color who also suffer from widespread childhood trauma,” said Aiden Lesley, a Child Rights Researcher at HRFK. “We have a responsibility to hear and care for our children, and we must do better to screen for and care for child victims of trauma before they end up in front of the justice system.”

The report also highlights the dangers of incarcerating children in adult prisons, including the likelihood of sexual or physical assault, and being placed in isolation for their own protection. The victimization and trauma children face can then exacerbate existing mental health conditions as the result of childhood trauma. Children incarcerated in adult facilities also face a higher risk of suicide than their peers in juvenile detention facilities.

Instead of prioritizing punishment, the HRFK report recommends focusing on trauma-informed systems of care for children. 

Among their list of recommendations, the HRFK is calling for earlier screening of ACEs, including in primary schools and foster care systems. The group is also demanding courts take a girl’s childhood trauma into account when considering whether to try in juvenile or adult court as well as in sentencing. They are also calling for retroactive resentencing for women currently incarcerated for crimes they committed as children. 

“The United States is shockingly comfortable with discarding the human rights – and lives – of vulnerable and abused girls,” said James L. Dold, CEO and founder of HRFK. “Instead of offering girls in crisis the healing they desperately need, we inflict further suffering by warehousing them in adult prisons where they face continued abuse and harm.”

“If you care about child victims of sexual and physical violence then you have to care about the girls in our country who are tried as adults because that’s where they end up when every other system fails them,” Dold added.


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Restoring Hope To Justice-Involved Women

Women offenders have special needs that often are not addressed during incarceration. As a result, transitioning from incarceration can be challenging and even impossible for many.


In 2021, there were roughly 228 women who returned to the Triangle area from state prison and in 2022, that number increased slightly to 232 (NC DPS - Office of Research & Planning, 2023). Also in 2022, there were more than 800 women serving their sentences on community probation throughout the Triangle area. Of both parolees and probationers, more than 80% were mothers of minor children and had the primary responsibility for their care prior to and following incarceration. Ex-incarcerated women are more likely than their male peers to experience higher levels of poverty, homelessness and abuse following a jail or prison term--making the post-prison transition much more difficult.

Research suggests that focusing on the differences between female and male conduits to criminality as well as applying gender-specific interventions, results in more positive outcomes. In the end, the application of specialized practices in criminal justice reform equals greater success for women ex-offenders when attempting to re-establish new pathways to society. It is also proven that the implementation of community-based, gender-responsive practices contributes to lower rates of female recidivism which in turn benefits justice-involved women, their families, the community and society as a whole.

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