Commentary by Rachel Pfeffer, founder of the Center for Young Women’s Development
SAN FRANCISCO - African American girls and young women have become the fastest growing population of incarcerated young people in the country. Efforts to stop mass incarceration focused on black girls are almost nonexistant in government policy, the media, foundations and academia.
Recently, the Thelton Henderson Center for Social Justice at the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Law School took the bold and necessary step of organizing a day-and-a-half free event titled, “African American Girls and Young Women and Juvenile Justice System: A Call to Action.”
The beauty of this conference was the focus on black girls and the passionate energy to create a path for action among the participants.
Academics and activists, among them formerly incarcerated African American girls and young women, gathered together from across the divides of class, age, race and place to talk about what we know about these young people, their interaction with the criminal justice system--and what we are going to do about it.
Sociologist Nikki Jones of UC Santa Barbara, and Meda Chesney-Lind, University of Hawaii opened up the conference with a look at the statistics.
“No”, said Jones, “Black girls are not committing more crimes, even though they are being incarcerated in record numbers.”
“I’ve been studying this for decades,” said Chesney-Lind. She added, “We have never seen these kind of numbers before. National policies like zero tolerance are responsible for the school to prison pipeline. And a dual justice system that treats white girls differently from black girls is disproportionately impacting African American girls.”
She continued, “In 2008, we knew the arrest rate in California was 49 out of every 1,000 for black girls, 8.9 per 1,000 for white girls and 14.9 per 1,000 for Latinas.”
The cause of the over criminalization of African American young women is best understood by looking back through the lens of American history and the ideological construction of black criminality.
“The shackles of slavery endured into other eras, including convict leasing systems and chain gangs,” said Prisicilla Ocen, a professor at UCLA’s Critical Race Studies.
“In order to sustain these systems, de-humanizing stereotypes of black women were created to maintain the difference between white and African American women,” she said. “Black girls are still dealing with racial and gendered stereotypes that were used to justify punishment.”
Ocen continued, “These historical stereotypes laid the groundwork for the creation of a dual criminal justice system – one where African American women and girls are treated differently for the same behaviors.”
Many participants saw the treatment of African American girls in the justice system as criminal with little accountability. “Adults are committing crimes too; this is part of the story that needs to be told,” said Barry Krisberg, Research and Policy Director at UC Berkeley’s Earl Warren Institute on Law.
Krisberg went on, “Once in the criminal justice system, African American girls are treated with brutality, so much emotional and sexual abuse. We are violating African American girls’ human rights everyday in all 58 counties of California. Where are the lawsuits? Where is the accountability?”
The breadth of the problem seems overwhelming, yet no one at the conference seemed daunted. The resolve in the room at Boalt Law School was palpable and the ideas for action began to flow. Formerly incarcerated participants, who work at the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD), and other formerly incarcerated African American girls will lead these efforts. They are the experts.
For the past 17 years, young women at CYWD have been leaving jail, the street economies and gangs to work for self healing, social justice, policy change and a meaningful place in their communities.
“The call to action is the task before us—there are a number of things we can do,” said Lateefah Simon, activist and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights San Francisco.
“The Henderson Center can provide institutional support for African American Leaders, who are engaging in the criminal justice system. We can convene all the judges, we can organize ourselves locally and nationally to focus on African American girl,” said Simon. “Yes, let’s do that--we want our girls to be free.”
There is room for everyone to have a meaningful part in efforts to stop the over incarceration of African American girls or young women.