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In Midst of Coronavirus, Let’s Redouble Our Efforts to End Incarceration for Girls

As advocates for community-based alternatives to incarceration and policing, we’re pleased to see how Santa Clara County and some other jurisdictions are acting with surprising speed and resolve to reduce the populations in their juvenile justice facilities, especially for girls and gender expansive youth of color.

But counties could easily return to their dependence on incarceration once this crisis has passed. While we have seen some progress, it will take partnership from across sectors, hard work and bold action to achieve real, systemic change and we will not back down until we put an end to the criminalization of young people of color. Now is the time to invest in the work of permanently reducing youth incarceration.

A June survey from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the rate of admissions to juvenile detention dropped by 52% in March and April because of the COVID-19 crisis. In California, as of September 14, more than 6,700 young people have been released from facilities since April 5, with an estimated 986 of those releases directly due to COVID-19. Where data is available by gender, we are seeing significant declines in detention for girls. From March 1 to September 11, Santa Clara County reduced the population on the girls’ side of its juvenile hall from 14 down to three. 

But we know that even three is too many. Overwhelmingly, the reasons why girls come into contact with the justice system are rooted in experiences of violence, trauma and discrimination. Putting these young people in detention doesn’t solve anything; in fact, it can make their problems worse. 

The COVID-19 crisis has helped shine a light on the structural discrimination and paternalism that drive confinement decisions for girls and gender-expansive youth in particular. Although many counties argued before the pandemic that confinement of these girls was necessary — both to protect public safety and, perversely, to protect incarcerated girls from harm — the current wave of decarceration shows these arguments are baseless.

We need to build on the progress that’s being made right now to reduce incarceration among girls and gender-expansive youth, before it’s too late. In fact, we are already seeing some signs that progress is stalling. The June research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation actually showed a spike in juvenile detention in May; it also revealed how racial disparities have increased as the number of young people in detention has gone down. 

Philanthropy can and must do more to support organizations, initiatives and movements that are advancing community alternatives to policing and incarceration. Once and for all, we need to stop treating girls of color as criminals or as young charges who need protection from themselves. 

Last year, the Vera Institute for Justice announced a focused, 10-year strategy to achieve zero confinement of girls across the country. Here in California, the Young Women’s Freedom Center recently launched Freedom 2030, a 10-year campaign with the goal of ending the criminalization of women, girls and gender-expansive people. 

Both of our organizations recently announced a partnership with local leaders in Santa Clara County to develop a holistic set of solutions to end the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth in the county and build out a model for ending incarceration across the state. Right now, Santa Clara’s juvenile detention facilities are holding historically low levels of young people, with the girls’ population hovering around five or less. And county leaders have made a commitment to real changes in policies and investments to support Black and Latinx girls. 

It’s time for philanthropy to double down on this work to achieve not only zero incarceration for girls, but also to advance girls’ freedoms by fully securing their rights to safety, housing, education and health. We need to target the underlying drivers of incarceration, including housing instability, sexual and physical violence, child welfare involvement, and the school-to-prison pipeline. We have years of data represented by the lived experiences of girls and gender-expansive youth that tell us that incarceration does not work to keep young people, or our communities, safe. 

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, wildfires and systemic racism, it’s hard right now for Californians to be hopeful. But we can feel good about the fact that we’re giving more girls a chance at a better life outside of confinement, and we need to make sure this trend continues — with real investments in the supports that girls truly need to thrive.

Hannah Green and Jessica Nowlan
The Imprint

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