Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
In D.C., black girls were arrested at a rate over 30 times that of white youth in 2015.
The kids are not alright—well, not all of them.
In Washington, D.C., the percentage of young black girls entering the juvenile justice system has risen dramatically, even as that of young black boys has decreased. Young black girls are now likely to be arrested at 30 times the rate of white boys and girls together, according to a new report by the advocacy group Rights4Girls and the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative.
“Girls of color are dealing with challenges posed by racism but they're also suffering as a result of adversity due to sexism,” said Yasmin Vafa, co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls, who co-authored the report.
For a while now, Vafa’s organization has been observing this trend in many parts of the country. She explored the reasons behind it in a previous report she co-authored, which outlined how gender-based violence disproportionately affects young girls of color, and often triggers their entry into the juvenile justice system. As it is currently set up, this system tends to penalize young girls of color who experience trauma, instead of helping them overcome it, she explained. Victims of sex trafficking, for example, can be arrested on charges of prostitution; young girls who face issues at home can be booked into jail for running away, breaking local curfew, or skipping school—even if they’re doing so to escape abuse or harassment; if they’re involved in a domestic scuffle, even in self-defense, they may be detained through mandatory arrest policies; and even their behavior at school is disproportionately scrutinized, punished, and criminalized.
In D.C., the effect of some of these policies is evident. When the authors analyzed city data obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, they found an 87 percent increase in the arrest of young girls between 2007 and 2016, whereas the arrest of boys dropped by 22 percent. Another concerning observation: Girls in D.C. seem to be entering the juvenile justice system at younger ages than boys, and for less serious crimes. Between 2007 and 2015, arrests of girls under 15 years of age went from half of total arrests among girls to 60 percent. The most common offense for which they got in trouble was “simple assault,” meaning an altercation that resulted in minor or no injury.
The arrest of young black girls in particular, appears to be driving this upward trend. Between 2007 and 2015, the per capita arrests of young black girls doubled, while that of black boys has increased by only 6 percent. (Black boys are still arrested in higher absolute numbers.)
At the root of these harsh responses is a sense of paternalism, the authors believe. “When a young girl is acting out in a particular way, the system responds by saying, 'That's not how young girls should act. We're going to respond by getting the system involved,” whereas for a young boy, for instance, they may take the approach, “Boys will be boys, so we don't need to get involved,”’ said Eduardo Ferrer, of the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative, who co-authored the report. That urge to overcorrect gets activated with particular gusto for girls of color—particularly black girls—who, data shows, have long been perceived as angrier, less innocent, less “ladylike,” and more sexually promiscuous.
“In many ways, [girls of color] are not seen with the same lens as other young people, and I think it says a lot about who in our society has to be seen and treated as a child,” Vafa said.
D.C. has made some strides, though. In 2016, the city council enacted reforms that try to divert youth from the juvenile justice system and shepherd them towards rehabilitative services. While these efforts were a step in the right direction, the criminalization of black girls continues to inch up. Apart from the discrimination they face as a result of their gender and race, this also has to do with “poverty in the District, the fact that girls of color are facing higher rates of trauma, and also living in over-policed communities,” Ferrer said.
His report comes after the release of important research by economists Raj Chetty of Stanford University, Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard University, and Maggie R. Jones and Sonya R. Porter of the U.S. Census Bureau, as a part of the Equality of Opportunity project. These researchers found large disparities in economic mobility for white and black males whose parents had the same income levels, which they concluded was largely due to the effects of racism and criminalization. Per their analysis, such a gap did not exist among women. The media’s framing of the study has earned some critique for suggesting that black women have somehow emerged unscathed.
The authors of this new report were understandably reluctant to draw direct connections between their findings and those of the Equality of Opportunity project. However, they did mention that current trends do not bode well for the future, despite the Equality of Opportunity’s findings showing no gap between economic achievement of black and white women based on parental income. “I am very concerned,” Ferrer said. “That may start to diverge more as we increasingly criminalize black girls and black women.”
“In relation to juvenile justice, we have been focusing a lot on boys: programs for boys, needing to invest in boys, needing to prevent boys from coming into contact with the system, “ Ferrer said. “And that same level of emphasis has not been placed on the needs of young women and young girls.”
CORRECTION: Because of an error in a communication from the university that co-produced the study, the percentage drop of arrests of boys was initially reported incorrectly and has been changed to 22 percent.