A Cruel and Unjust Juvenile Justice System

Why are so many girls in detention?

Marian Wright Edelman | 2/25/2015, 12:49 p.m.
Why are so many girls, especially girls of color, confined in our nation’s detention facilities, and what are we as ...
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund.

I’m grateful for a powerful new book, Girls in Justice by artist Richard Ross, a follow up to his moving earlier Juvenile In Justice, which combines Ross’s photographs of girls in the juvenile justice system with interviews he gathered from over 250 detention facilities across the United States. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the deeply disturbing photographs speak volumes.

Ross uses the power of photography to make visible the hidden and harsh world of girls in detention. These heartwrenching images coupled with the girls’ ages and life stories should move us to confront the cruel and unjust juvenile justice system in our nation. These girls are ours: our neighbors, our children’s classmates, our daughters and granddaughters, sisters, cousins, and nieces — and, for some young children, our mothers.

“Girls in Justice” begs the questions—why are so many girls, especially girls of color, confined in our nation’s detention facilities, and what are we as a society going to do about it?

We must all work tirelessly to give hope and a fair chance to these girls and all children by promoting policies, programs, and supports that help them and their families, especially those most at risk. We must combat systemic problems that contribute to family and community dysfunction and wreak havoc on developing children including girls; we must dig beneath the surface and examine the root cause of girls’ “offenses” and why injustice saps the hopes of so many young lives on our watch.

In 2013, one in five girls in the United States was poor, and girls of color were disproportionately poor. From birth to young adulthood, children — especially poor children and children of color — encounter multiple and cumulative risk factors that often result in their being funneled into the prison pipeline through the juvenile and criminal justice systems and locked up behind bars. Such massive incarceration is sentencing millions of children to social and economic death. The pipeline to prison is lodged at the intersection of poverty and race and is intolerable in a professed society of opportunity.