CHICAGO—LeaJay Harper says she was a typically rebellious teenager raised by a single mother. She left home at 17 and lived on the streets, surviving on stale donated bread and sleeping on church porches. When she was 18, she was arrested for stealing a $10 bag of McDonald’s food.
“I was hungry,” she said. She went to jail.
Still homeless at 23, Harper was arrested again, this time for stealing underwear and pajamas for the young daughter she was raising on her own. She faced a three-year sentence and the likely loss of custody of her child.
Harper’s story mirrors those of many other African-American girls and young women caught up in the justice system. Experts say they make up the fastest-growing population of incarcerated people in the nation. They are often victims themselves, of abuse, poverty, and even the public schools.
“They are not being arrested for violent acts—that’s really important to understand,” said Lateefah Simon, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco.
According to a Children’s Defense Fund study, an African-American girl born in 2001 has a one-in-17 lifetime risk of going to prison. A white girl born the same year has a one-in-111 chance.
“What we know is that African-American girls are being cycled in and out of the justice system for truancy, for crimes of poverty, for becoming part of the exploitive underground sex industry,” Simon said. “What we haven’t figured out is how to help these girls, so judges lock [them] up.”
Simon said the trend is nationwide, and Latinas are right behind African-American girls in the statistics, for many of the same reasons.
“I think these communities are facing similar issues,” Simon said. “There is always room for young women in juvenile hall, but not always room in programs that would help them.”
LeaJay Harper was one of the lucky few. Instead of returning to jail, she was sent to a six-month treatment program that put her back on the right track. Now 28, Harper runs the Young Mothers United Program at the Center for Young Women’s Development in San Francisco. She helps other young African-American girls and women at risk of losing their children because of their arrest records.
“Usually, with women, it is crimes of poverty, being involved with what we nicely call ‘the underground street economy’ – just trying to put food on the table for their children,” said Harper.
“Girls go in and out of the juvenile justice system, they don’t get their education and they can’t get a job. Maybe they will get $500 a month in support from the government, but then they find out they can make $500 a day selling drugs,” said Harper. “Lots of young women and girls go into prostitution. You can sell a product that you have that you don’t need to put money up for in advance, and you never run out of it.”
Prostitution carries many risks for women, including jail time for those arrested. In Illinois, a second conviction for prostitution is a felony, with a 60-day prison sentence.
“It is so outrageous. Going to prison does nothing to address the root problems of prostitution,” said Gail Smith, executive director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM). “Sixty days is long enough to make you lose your housing, your children, and, when you have a felony conviction, it further reduces your chances of getting a real job.”
Instead of prison, a real solution would be to connect girls and young women to treatment, housing and education, Smith said.
CLAIM provides legal aid to incarcerated mothers to help them keep their children. The staff advocates community-based sentencing, better conditions for children visiting their mothers in prison, and holding prostitution customers and pimps accountable.
To those who work with low-income African-American youth, the link between poverty, abuse, punitive school policies and the growing incarceration of young women is all too clear, but the outcome is still shocking.
“It’s alarming,” said Oleta Fitzgerald, director of Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office.
“Many of the girls who are running away from home have been abused,” said Fitzgerald. “The surprising and alarming fact is the growing incidence of girls in rural communities turning to prostitution,” she said. “They don’t have any money to live off of, they are getting abused at home, so they figure they might as well get paid for doing it.”
Fitzgerald and many others blame school policies such as Zero Tolerance that allow schools to expel students for subjective offenses. She recalled hearing about a girl who had been kicked out of school for snatching a pen. That one small act started her in a downward spiral.
“Kids are getting kicked out of school under Zero Tolerance for something really minor, and it turns into a nightmare,” she said. “Who is collecting the statistics?"
The Southern Poverty Law Center, in fact, has collected statistics – although not broken down by gender – that show African-Americans are three times more likely than whites to be suspended from school under Zero Tolerance policies.
Nikki Jones, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of “Between Good and Ghetto” and co-author of “Fighting for Girls: New Perspectives on Gender and Violence,” said school policies that expel students for truancy, sassing or fighting, disproportionately affect African-American girls.
“For girls from tough neighborhoods, it is more of a survival strategy where they have to come off like this to stay safe. It makes teachers nervous,” said Jones.
The answer, she said, is to make school a safe place and give teachers the skills to de-escalate situations.
“The school is such an important place; if a girl remains connected, there are points for intervention. Removing them from school is exactly the wrong thing to do,” said Jones.
“Once young women are in the juvenile justice system, they are caught in the system and go deeper and deeper. The juvenile justice system is not the place where we want to raise our young women.”
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