SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. — A movement is afoot to reduce the number of teenage girls behind bars to zero, led by a coalition of juvenile justice reform groups, judges, attorneys and probation officers.
Santa Clara County is one of five sites nationwide taking part in the initiative launched by the Vera Institute of Justice.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Katherine Lucero supervises the juvenile-justice court there. The judge is spearheading the effort to drill down on each young woman’s case to find out what went wrong in her life, and then see if the court can help — for example, with a safe place to live, transportation to school or drug treatment.
“Let’s really individualize our approach so that we can get this woman what she needs to be successful,” says Lucero. “Instead of overwhelm her or make demands that are not going to be achievable because of a situation at home.”
The program takes into account issues, such as structural racism and abuse that lands a disproportionate number of girls of color and LGBTQ girls in the juvenile-justice system. They are collecting the data to be able to analyze current practices and have begun training girls so they can speak out and help inform policy changes.
Attorney Darya Larizadeh with Youth Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law says it’s important to understand that sexual violence is a big driver of subsequent criminal behavior in girls. So, providing safe places for girls to escape abuse will keep more of them off the streets.
“Approximately 80% of girls in the juvenile-justice system have experienced some form of sexual violence,” says Larizadeh. “Whether at home or outside the home. And girls are over four times more likely to report having experienced some sort of sexual abuse than boys. ”
Lindsay Rosenthal, project director with the Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration at the Vera Institute of Justice, says helping girls solve their problems is much more effective than simply locking them up.
“It’s an equity issue,” Rosenthal explains. “Because girls and especially girls of color who are disproportionately impacted have been left behind for so long in the juvenile-justice system. And they have really specific needs that have been overlooked.”
The program also combats the tendency of some law enforcement to keep girls in custody in order to keep them safe from abusive situations or sex trafficking. Instead, agencies are tasked with finding appropriate placements with family, friends or a foster family.