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Excerpted from: DeAnna Baumle, Creating the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline: How the U.S. Justice System Criminalizes Structural and Interpersonal Trauma Experienced by Girls of Color, 56 Family Court Review 695 (October 2018) (127 Footnotes) (Full Document)


DeAnnaBaumleSasha was raped as a high school student. When news of the rape was circulated in social media, she was ridiculed by her classmates, making it impossible for her to feel safe at school. Sasha immediately became truant. For six months, Sasha's mother unsuccessfully appealed to school district administrators to transfer Sasha to a safer school environment. In an effort to ensure that Sasha still received her education, her mother attempted to home school her, but the school district threatened to refer Sasha to the child welfare system for keeping her out of school. Because of her extensive, unaddressed trauma and fear for her own safety, Sasha refused to go to school and ultimately dropped out. After two years out of school and without receiving trauma-related services, she was arrested on petty theft charges. Only after her arrest was Sasha referred to a therapist who identified her trauma as the cause of her truancy.

Sasha is not alone. Mass incarceration has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform over the past few years, and rightly so--there has been a fivefold increase of the number of people in jails since 1970. However, the incarceration of women has alarmingly increased fourteen-fold over the same period, despite the fact that women and girls have not increased their criminal activity. A staggering 86% of incarcerated women have experienced sexual abuse at some point in their lives. Additionally, 77% of incarcerated women report being victims of intimate partner violence, and 60% report being victims of abuse and violence by their caregivers. Women in jail are disproportionately from low-income communities and from communities of color. Incarcerated women and girls also report startlingly high rates of poor mental health. Girls involved in juvenile justice systems have similarly high rates of mental illness and histories of physical and sexual abuse--and in some cases, the rates are even higher. Girls of color and girls from low-income communities are also disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system.

Researchers and scholars have described these trends as the “sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline.” This pipeline focuses on how girls are routed into the juvenile justice system and is a counterpart to the school-to-prison pipeline. Although the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline focuses on girls' experiences of sexual trauma, it also highlights how girls of color and girls from low-income communities are disproportionately represented in the system. Yet focusing exclusively on sexual abuse and violence fails to capture the entire picture. Girls in the system have disproportionately experienced many kinds of trauma, including the structural trauma of racism and poverty.

By expanding our understanding of the pipeline to include these multiple and intersecting forms of trauma, it becomes clear that the U.S. justice system is systematically criminalizing girls' trauma reactions. Being subject to trauma-- both interpersonal and structural--is not merely a predictor for the incarceration of girls of color but is a cause of their incarceration. The trauma-to-prison pipeline thus cannot be addressed until the root causes of the pipeline are addressed. We must decriminalize trauma reactions and instead create a system of supportive services that directly addresses the trauma of abuse, poverty, and racism.

This article focuses exclusively on the girls' story--how the trauma-to-prison pipeline is created and maintained for girls, particularly girls of color. Although the trauma-to-prison pipeline may also play a similar role in the justice-involvement of boys, girls are particularly affected by the pipeline because they are a faster-growing population in the justice system, they are much more likely to experience multiple and intersecting forms of trauma, they tend to be punished more harshly for their reactions to trauma, and their needs are less likely to be met by the system once they become justice involved.

Part II of this article describes the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline as it is currently conceived, explores its relationship with the school-to-prison pipeline, and presents my conception of a broader trauma-to-prison pipeline.

Part III explains how interpersonal and structural trauma affect behavior and argues that the current criminal and juvenile justice systems criminalize such behavior disproportionately among low-income girls of color, thus creating the trauma-to-prison pipeline. Part IV calls for the decriminalization of trauma and explores policy initiatives that may better address the root causes of the pipeline.

. . .

While the school-to-prison and sexual abuse-to-prison pipelines are important conceptions that have yielded much-needed research and advocacy, they do not capture the whole story of the juvenile justice system in the United States. Girls that are justice-involved disproportionately experience many kinds of trauma--both interpersonal and structural--and their justice involvement is closely correlated, and likely causally related, to their trauma. The pipeline is created through the criminalization of trauma reactions, both specifically through status offenses and certain crimes and more generally through disproportionate targeting of low-income girls of color--girls who are also more likely to experience multiple and intersecting forms of trauma. To address the needs of these girls and dismantle the pipeline, numerous policies must be implemented that eliminate the criminalization of trauma reactions and address the causes of trauma itself. Additionally, further research should be conducted to more fully explore the connection between girls' experiences of trauma, their trauma reactions, and their justice involvement.

DeAnna Baumle graduated from Fordham University's J.D./M.S.W. program in May 2018, where she studied public interest law and community-based practice and leadership.end of document