This Looks Familiar: Sexism and Racism in the Justice Systems

Few published works correctly walk the thin line between too heartbreaking to read and just page-turning enough to compel the reader to the last page. Meda Chesney-Lind’s “Jailing ‘Bad’ Girls: Girls’ Violence and Trends in Female Incarceration,” masters that tightrope with finesse. Chapter three of the larger piece “Fighting for Girls: New Perspectives on Gender and Violence,” delves into the current state of affairs for girls’ incarceration and the deeply gendered nuances of the juvenile justice system. She opens the piece by describing the current mass incarceration situation that the U.S. is propping up. Before making a comparison between the adult and juvenile justice systems in America, Chesney-Lind reports that “Between 1970 and today, the U.S. prison population increased a staggering eight fold” (p. 57). She continues on to share that “The Pew Center on the States noted in a recent report on the phenomenon that our country now incarcerates nearly 1 out of every 100 of our adult citizens” (p. 57). Then, without skipping a beat, the feminist criminologist details the heavy and unequal policing of girls, the lived experiences of the girls in detention, and what the current situation means for the nation and the future.

Most treacherously, Chesney-Lind’s retelling of these girls’ treatment and conditions is enough to make any decent-minded person tremble. Not only are there not enough gender specific institutions for incarcerated youth, the facilities they do have run rampant with abuse, neglect, and decay. Some of the eye-watering stories Chesney-Lind tells, describe young women and girls being shackled to polls, placed in dark rooms naked for acting out or being suicidal, denied water or warmth, forced to eat their own vomit, fed roach-infested food, and thrown face down on the floor and tied up. Even merely writing down the inhumane treatment is perplexing and breathtaking, not in the good way but the literal sense. As with most gendered violence towards women, the girls in these centers also face sexual assault and rape as an asterisk on their already punitive reality. Further, Chesney-Lind tells that when they face girls who experienced traumatic occurrences before incarceration, probation officers have a tendency to blame the survivors. She quotes, “They feel like they’re the victim. They try from, ‘Mom kicked me out’ to “Mom’s boyfriend molested me’ or ‘My brother was sexually assaulting me.’ They’ll find all kinds of excuses to justify their actions.”

This unequal treatment, grievously, is not monopolized only by women. Both the juvenile justice system and the larger criminal justice system incarcerate black and brown people like it is their middle name. Michael J. Leiber’s article “Race, Pre- and Postdetention, and Juvenile Justice Decision Making” elucidates, in numbers, this harsh reality. “Nationwide, for example, between 1983 and 1997, four out of five of new detainees during this 15-year period were minority youths,” it reads (p. 397). Leiber continues, “In 2005, 19% of all juvenile

delinquent referrals resulted in detention, with African American youths comprising 40% of those detained” (p. 397). Now, as of Saturday, 26 January 2019, 38% of inmates in America are black, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Meanwhile, the most recent census data shows that only 13.4% of the U.S. population are black. These statistics are but the tip of the iceberg in a ginormous inequitable system where your race dictates the length of your sentence, your likelihood to be arrested, and your treatment within the facilities. From an intersectional perspective, black girls and women face a particular type of evil in juvenile and criminal justice systems. Chesney-Lind writes that “African American girls (who are only 18% of New York’s youth population) comprised 54% of the girls sent to these facilities” (p. 69). Put simply, black girls receive the worst of the worst as they are both criminalized for their race and gender.

These statistics, while still shocking, are easier to grasp in conjunction with larger social inequality and institutional racism in mind. In a nation where white families have nearly 10 times the net worth of black families, according to the Federal Reserve, the incarceration rate of minority youth can be seen as a symptom of and support to the larger systems at hand. Steering away from an individualistic explanation of racist and sexist treatment in facilities, both Chesney-Lind and Leiber focus on larger, systemic, and institutionalized forms of discrimination. Working towards solutions, the former suggests, “Advocacy for community-based programing is critical, since it is clear that the girls in the juvenile justice system cannot wait another generation for things to change” (p. 73). Moreover, she ends the piece by posing a challenging – “What If?” The author asks the reader to, “Imagine how different the juvenile justice system would look like if we, as a nation, decided to take girls’ sexual and physical victimization seriously and arrested the perpetrators rather than criminalizing girls’ survival strategies and jailing them for daring to escape” (p. 73). Likewise, the latter explains that race “relationships [do] not always result in disadvantageous outcomes,” and that, due to this complexity, “there must be an awareness of the multiple stages, actors, and goals involved in juvenile justice proceedings, as well as the overall contexts of the juvenile court before reforms may be effective at reducing the unnecessary secure detainment of youths and ensuring equitable treatment of African Americans relative to Whites” (p. 414).

Considering all of the horrific stories of abuse detailed in these works, as well as the seemingly innumerable amount swept under the rug, it can be reasonably argued that, for better or for worse, the justice systems mimic the deep darknesses in their relative larger society. When reading about sexual exploitation in juvenile justice centers, one must realize that America is the land in which 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime, according to the nonprofit “Stop Street Harassment.” When learning that Black girls’ are unequally treated and heavily policed in their daily lives, one ought note that “a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education,” according to the New York Times and “Brookings,” an American research group. Lastly, when analyzing how the system is only just for some, one should preach that the barbed-wired barriers do not shield juvenile and criminal facilities from the sexist and racist intents outside their walls.

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