By Shantella Y. Sherman
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) recently held a panel of juvenile court judges and young women to discuss how Congress should address the specific needs of women and girls in the judicial system. The panel, on June 26, focused on issues impacting women and young girls in prison, including abuse and neglect during incarceration. The panel also addressed the disproportionate number of female prisoners formerly in the foster care system and who have suffered childhood physical abuse, sexual molestation, and abandonment.
“Fundamentally, I believe that the best policy is done when the people who are most immediately impacted are involved in telling the policymakers what the policy should be,” Bass said. “Juvenile justice is an absolutely critical issue for us and while we’re engaging in this discussion in this country girls and women must be included in the discussion because our needs are different in the criminal justice system.”
According to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2007, the most recently available data, more than 50 percent of the women in jail reported having been physically or sexually abused before their imprisonment. Coming from an abusive environment directly impacts how young women see themselves, and therefore the decisions they make.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), more than 14,000 girls (defined as under the age of TK) are currently incarcerated in the United States, a number that has been rapidly increasing in recent decades. Most girls, arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses and probation violations, are locked up under the guise of rehabilitation and subjected to punitive solitary confinement, routine strip searches, and other forms of abuse.
Esché L. Jackson, a University of Southern California graduate who was a foster youth before she was incarcerated told the audience that exposure to violence at a young age impacted her childhood and early adulthood.
“I think I was traumatized because there were a lot of domestic issues I was experiencing that translated into my academics, and then my behavior was worse,” said Jackson who stood trial for murder to protect her boyfriend. “I was in the street life and I was gang-affiliated, just leading a life of destruction.”
U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, (D-Va.), who introduced H.R. 1064 The Youth Promise Act, which promotes a reduction in prison sentences through mentoring and intervention, joined Scott and said his program would do a lot to keep young girls from getting into trouble, as well as cut down on recidivism.
“We have a criminal justice system that as policy just waits until people get off track, join a gang mess up and get caught and then get into a bidding war over who can impose the most egregious sentence,” Scott said. “Waiting until it’s too late has gotten us to a point where we lock up a higher portion of our population than any country on earth. We can do something about these young women if we take a proactive approach.”