Behind Bars: For Black Girls, Acting Out Is a Crime

Equal Voice Newspaper (via New America Media), Kathy Mulady | May 30, 2011

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.  (Read more)