The Increased Criminalization of African American Girls

April 17, 2019 by bmc85

by Erin Killeen

In D.C., where income inequality is higher than in any of the fifty states, the income of the typical African American household has not grown since 2007. [1] There are a number of factors that may contribute to the economic disparity between African Americans and whites in D.C. One such factor is the disproportionate rate at which African American youth are arrested and committed.[2] The harmful effects of entering the juvenile justice system as a teenager can have lasting negative impacts on job opportunities and earning capacity.[3]

African Americans already face significant discrimination in hiring practices. One study showed that African American applicants—with the exact same resume and interview training as white applicants—were offered jobs at a low rate compared to the white applicants.[4] So low, in fact, that they were offered jobs at the same rate as white applicants with criminal records.[5]

Additionally, women of all races are less likely to get hired for jobs than men.[6] If they are hired, they earn significantly less than men do.[7] Clearly, there are barriers to employment faced by those who are both African American and female, independent of any criminal involvement. Disparate treatment in the court system starting at a young age can exacerbate these already extreme discrepancies.

In the District of Columbia, more girls are entering the juvenile justice system than ever before.[8] Today, girls make up a larger percentage of system-involved youth than they have in years past.[9] While the majority of kids arrested and detained in D.C. are boys, girls are becoming increasingly involved with the D.C. juvenile court system.

It isn’t that girls are becoming more dangerous. Studies show their behavior has remained the same over time.[10] What has changed, however, is the number of young girls of color arrested. The driving factor behind the growing proportion of girls in the juvenile justice system is an increase in arrests and adjudications of African American girls.[11]

African American girls are the fastest growing portion of the juvenile justice system.[12] Compared to any other group, African American girls are significantly overrepresented both in the D.C. juvenile justice system and in juvenile court systems nationwide. African American girls make up only 14% of the population, yet they comprise 33% of detained and committed girls.[13] Why is their involvement in the criminal justice system skyrocketing compared to any other demographic?

In a study done by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, results showed that adults view African American girls as “less innocent” and “more adult-like” than white girls of the same age.[14] The study revealed that adults perceive African American girls as needing less nurturing and less protection than white girls.[15] These findings help to explain the disproportionate rates of punishment in the juvenile justice system for African American girls as compared to white girls.

But race alone cannot explain the increase in arrests of girls of color; if it could, we would expect arrests of African American boys to rise at the same rate. Data indicates, however, that for African American boys living in D.C., per capita arrests increased only 6% between 2007 and 2015.[16] During that same time period, arrests of African American girls in D.C. more than doubled.[17]

The Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality uses the phrase “the adultification of Black girls” to describe the unconscious ways in which African American girls are viewed as older and more culpable than white girls. “The perception of Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like may contribute to more punitive exercise of discretion by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties.”[18] The Georgetown study mimicked and expanded on a similar study done by Phillip Goff in 2014, which focused on African American boys. Goff’s research revealed that starting at age ten, African American boys are more likely than their white male peers to be perceived as older and less innocent.[19] But if African American boys suffer from the same “adultification” as African American girls, then why are arrests of African American girls increasing at such a rapid rate compared to African American boys?

In America, African American girls face a unique set of social inequities. They are at the crossroads of not just racism, but sexism as well. African American girls are seen by law enforcement officers, probation officers, and prosecutors not just as African American, but also as female. Boys benefit from the “boys will be boys” mentality that many adults in positions of authority use to explain away bad behavior. For girls, however, “un-ladylike” behavior, such as loudness or challenging authority, is consistently punished. Studies have indicated that not only are girls of all races under greater surveillance of their decorum than boys, African American girls are under greater surveillance of their decorum than white girls.[20]

In a world in which decision-makers such as judges, probation officer, and prosecutors have broad discretion, African American girls will be treated more punitively than others, even for minor offenses.[21] Research has shown, for example, that prosecutors used their discretion to dismiss roughly only three out of every ten cases for African American girls, but they dismissed seven out of every ten cases for white girls.[22] Unlike boys, the majority of offenses for which girls are arrested and detained are non-violent, non-weapons related offenses.[23] Girls are also more likely to be arrested and detained for minor crimes, including status offenses, which are offenses that are only illegal when committed by a minor.[24] Running away from home, for example, is a status offense for which young girls are disproportionately arrested.

When a child absconds from her home—whether it’s her parents’ home or a foster home assigned to her through Child Protective Services—police are authorized to arrest her at any time. The same is true for boys. But studies show that girls are punished for offenses such as running away at higher rates than boys.[25] When girls are punished for leaving an abusive home, they are taught that they can escape neither law enforcement nor hostile domestic environments. Girls, and African American girls in particular, are taught that they will be punished for trying to leave an abusive parent, foster home, or other situation.

The underlying issues prompting girls to flee their homes remain unaddressed. These status offenses tend to “stem from abuse and trauma that has gone unrecognized.”[26] African American girls experience higher rates of adverse childhood experiences (“ACEs”) than any other group.[27] The lasting impacts of trauma and abuse on African American girls is significant. Trauma and delinquency are inextricably linked. When a child experiences trauma, she is more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system. African American girls are also less likely to be seen as victims of trauma, and thus do not receive the services they need that might reduce their system involvement.[28]

When African American girls are assigned more culpability and punishment for their actions, their contact with the criminal justice system increases. Once a child enters the criminal justice system, it is difficult to break free. In many jurisdictions, when a child is arrested, she is either detained at a secure detention facility or released to the community pending her next court date. But even if a child is released to the community, she is ordered to abide by certain conditions, such as a curfew, regular school attendance, weekly drug testing, or complying with an ankle monitor to track her location. If she fails to comply with these conditions, a child might receive a harsher sentence, such as commitment to a long-term facility or high-supervision probation for up to a year. In sum, once a girl is arrested, she is watched closely by probation officers and prosecutors. If she slips up, the consequences for her future—including job prospects and educational opportunities—could be severe.

Racism and sexism in this country, unfortunately, persist even today. But there are steps that law enforcement, public defenders, and prosecutors can take to help alleviate some of the underlying causes behind the disproportionate punishment of African American girls. D.C., for example, rewrote their criminal code to disallow the secure detention of children who are not delinquent, but rather merely in need of supervision. This means that children cannot be placed in secure detention for status offenses such as running away from home. Other jurisdictions should follow suit. Additionally, public defenders can and should use research and data on trauma and resilience to bolster their arguments when it comes to detention hearings and sentencing. The more that judges, prosecutors, and probation officers are educated on the underlying causes of young girls’ behavior, the better the services, such as counseling and diversion programs, will become. When adults in positions of authority stop disproportionately punishing African American girls, those girls can begin to plan for a better future—both emotionally and economically.

[1] Sarah Jane Shoenfeld, Don’t Let Development Push Out Low-Income Residents, Wash. Post (March 23, 2018),

[2] Eduardo Ferrer et al., Rights4Girls & the Georgetown Law Juvenile Justice Initiative, Beyond the Walls: A Look at Girls in D.C.’s Juvenile Justice System 27 (2018).

[3] National Academy of Sciences, Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach 42 (Richard J. Bonnie, et al., eds.) (2013).

[4] Sendhil Mullainathan, Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions, N.Y. Times (Jan. 3, 2015),

[5] Id.

[6] Dina Gerdeman, Why Employers Favor Men, Harv. Bus. School: Working Knowledge (September 11, 2017),

[7] Claire Cain Miller, Pay Gap is Because of Gender, Not Jobs, N.Y. Times (April 23, 2014),

[8] Ferrer et. al., supra note 2, at 1.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 2.

[11] Id. at 31.

[12] Id. at 37.

[13] Id. at 3.

[14] Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake & Thali Gonzalez, Georgetown Law Ctr. On Poverty & Inequality, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood 2 (2017),

[15] Id. at 8.

[16] Ferrer et. al., supra note 2, at 21.

[17] Id.

[18] Epstein et. al., supra note 14, at 1.

[19] Phillip A. Goff, The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, J. Psychol. and Social Psychol. (2014).

[20] Epstein et. al., supra note 14, at 6.

[21] Id. at 12.

[22] Id.

[23] Ferrer et. al., supra note 2, at 23.

[24] Id.  at 7.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 3.

[27] Id. at 36.

[28] Id. at 38.