Bloomberg Law
Aug. 12, 2020, 8:01 AM

INSIGHT: Handcuffs Over Homework—The Criminalization of Black Girls

Rebecca Epstein
Rebecca Epstein
Initiative on Gender Justice & Opportunity
Yasmin Vafa
Yasmin Vafa

News about Grace, a 15-year-old Black girl from Michigan, has gone viral: She was released July 31 after public outcry against a judge’s decision to place her in detention in May, on the grounds that she violated probation by not turning in homework. The judge imposed this punishment even though neither the defense nor the prosecution—nor Grace’s mother—had sought it.

But beyond the outrage behind Grace’s spending two months in juvenile detention for failing to do homework, the real news should be just how common this experience is for Black girls. At this time of national reckoning, if we’re serious about reaching new standards of racial equity, we need to recognize the pervasive patterns and practices that harm Black girls and other girls of color.

Just as the killing of George Floyd and others provided the catalyst to open more Americans’ eyes to systemic police violence against the Black community, Grace’s arrest and detention should be the wake-up call to end the criminalization of Black girls.

So far, Black girls have not been particularly visible in this conversation. But as Grace’s story makes clear, we can no longer ignore the harms that have been caused by systemic failures, adultification bias, and misogyny/misogynoir.

Juvenile Justice System Becomes Part of Harmful Cycle

The background of the case seems straightforward: Grace was on probation because she’d been charged with simple assault—a nonviolent offense stemming from family conflict. The terms of her probation included a commitment to do her homework. In May, when she failed to fulfill that promise, the judge sent her to a facility. In reviewing the case several months later, the judge told Grace: “You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

We find Grace’s case all too familiar. It reflects widespread racial biases that consign thousands of Black girls into a juvenile justice system that, for many, becomes part of a harmful cycle. Recognizing these patterns is an essential step toward changing them.

Black girls are sent into the juvenile justice system at a much higher rate than their white peers. Black girls are only 14% of the general population, but they represent 33% of detained girls. And despite a recent overall decrease in youth incarceration, reform has resulted in little to no benefit for girls—including in Washington, D.C., where girls are actually worse off.

Three Patterns of Discriminatory Treatment

What lies behind this unacceptable treatment? Our work and others’ identifies at least three patterns of discriminatory treatment that were in play in Grace’s case.

First, girls are often classified as aggressors—even when they’re defending themselves or responding to family chaos. Simple assault charges often arise from family disputes or conflicts with parents or siblings. Because of mandatory arrest laws—originally intended to shore up police responses to spousal abuse—girls are often inappropriately detained.

Second, judges typically fail to consider the trauma at the root of many girls’ behavior. Girls of color who experience violence are often subjected to this response, disproportionately arrested for status offenses like running away. But instead of stopping to recognize that these girls may be trying to escape an abusive situation, judges simply punish the behavior, rather than treating the larger challenges that caused it.

Third, judges often justify detention of girls “for their own protection.” Historically, girls’ involvement in the system is rooted in the belief that “bad” girls must be controlled. That result is not only deeply misogynistic, but defies reality: The reality of what life is like in facilities, the reality of the “services” that they actually offer girls, and the dim likelihood of improved health and wellness in confinement.

Detention is unlikely to help girls in any meaningful way. Depriving girls of their freedom, exposing them to the dehumanizing conditions of confinement, and disconnecting them from friends, family and school risks exacerbating the very issues that led to their initial behavior and derails the potential for healing. Instead, it fuels a cycle of further system involvement, trauma, and adult incarceration.

And amid a global pandemic, children in facilities are exposed to a high risk of infection. In fact, according to the Sentencing Project, more than 1,500 detained youth nationwide have already tested positive for COVID-19.

What girls need—and deserve—is support and healing. If a child needs mental health services, she should not have to be criminalized to receive them.

As our culture grapples with the layers of harm created by oppressive, violent systems and structural inequities, this case should serve as an opportunity to learn and do better. We hope that it will be the spark that ignites recognition that Grace, and all girls like her, should be free.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Rebecca Epstein is the executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and founder of the Center’s Initiative on Gender Justice & Opportunity; Yasmin Vafa is co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls.