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In America's juvenile justice system, experts say girls, who make up a larger portion of incarcerated youth than in the past, have often been victims of trauma and abuse. Now, programs in Jacksonville, Florida, aim to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate. NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports.
On an afternoon in August, 17-year-old Soozee Stuart, there in the pink dress, stands before a judge in Jacksonville Florida.
Over the last few years, she's been charged with domestic battery, resisting arrest and possession of marijuana, and cycled in and out of juvenile detention.
She violated probation repeatedly and was on the road to a long-term sentence. But that's not going to happen today.
Because this is Girls Court, a year-old experiment to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate delinquent girls. Stuart's one of the first nine teens to go through it. Girls Court recognizes that, while many of these girls committed crimes, many are also victims.
Girls experience trauma at a different frequency and different kinds of trauma than boys, girls react differently, and respond to that trauma differently.
A 2014 study showed 31 percent of girls in Florida's juvenile justice system have been sexually abused. That's four times the rate of boys; 41 percent of girls have been physically abused. Girls like Soozee Stuart.
I felt like a reject. I felt like I couldn't get it right, no matter what.
To hear Stuart tell it, her problems began when she was 9-years-old. Her mother was in prison for a domestic dispute with a boyfriend. And Stuart says her father was physically abusive. She spent time in foster care and a state home for troubled kids. At 15, she ran away, then became a teen mom.
Angry. Disappointment. Confusion. You know, I didn't know who I was, or what my worth was. My self-esteem was so low, it's not even funny.
After her first arrest, a domestic battery charge, and then detention, Stuart says she needed help but never found anyone she could trust.
How do you feel like you were treated along the way?
I feel like everybody had an attitude of, "You're not going to make it anyways." So, I started believing it. Back then I was like, "I ain't got nothing to lose. I'm going to get locked up anyways." Doing stuff I wasn't supposed to, I'd do it at the drop of a dime, because everyone made me feel like that's what- that's all I was worth.
Juvenile detention only reinforced her low expectations, even when she was released.
I said, "Okay, I'm leaving. Y'all won't see me again." "No, you'll be back." That's the kind of stuff they told us. You know? "You'll be back."
And she was — by her count around six times. So her probation officer recommended her case be transferred to the new Girls Court. It was launched by judge David Gooding and children's advocates like Lawanda Ravoira. She runs the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, an advocacy and counseling group for girls in Jacksonville.
What we see often times when the girls have had a traumatic experience/ she doesn't always have a vocabulary to explain what's going on. And so, she will act out.
Although the total number of both girls and boys entering the juvenile justice system has dropped in Jacksonville and across the nation, rates have dropped more slowly for girls. Research suggests zero-tolerance polices and more aggressive policing of things like fights at home have impacted girls more than boys.
Often, the system's response is to push girls away, by punishing them, and not getting to the root cause of what's driving the behavior.
To be clear, though, I mean, a lot of these girls have committed serious crimes and they do need to be held accountable for their behavior. Right?
Absolutely. We would be the first to say that girls must be held accountable for their behaviors. But that has to be balanced with recognizing where we have failed to intervene early.
Earlier intervention may have helped Mia Paz. As a teen in Orlando, she cycled in and out of Florida's juvenile justice system.
There was resisting arrest. There was possession of marijuana // I also had possession of alcohol. I had fleeing and eluding, a cop chase, a car chase.
Paz believes she was acting out because of trauma at home. She says her uncle began to sexually abuse her when she was in seventh grade.
It started just, like, very awkward and weird questions. And then feeling weird from all- un- unwanted touching. And then it wasn't until I thought, "No, I don't want to do that," then it was more violent.
She began getting into trouble, drinking and using drugs with her friends.
During the time that I was being abused I was really trying to avoid being at home. //00:25:43 It wasn't like I was smoking pot because I was bored. For me, it was because I- I was self-medicating. I would rather be high than think about the two hours until I go home kind of thing.
Paz says she kept the abuse secret and it made her distrust and fear adults, especially the police.
I was almost like a cornered dog. I would run. It was the fight or flight mentality. And when you have a police officer talking to you, you can't fight them or run.
But that's what Paz did. She was expelled, and she says she probably spent about six months of her high school years in rehab or detention.
I was very scared. I was very, very scared. Because I felt like the girls- Like, I always felt like I was the toughest of my friends. And here I am in a group full of people that are all tougher than me.
Paz finally found help at another alternative for at-risk teens: The Pace Center for Girls, a network of schools for girls started in Jacksonville 30 years ago as an alternative to incarceration. It offers high school classes and counseling at 19 schools across Florida. Paz finally talked about her abuse. She flourished, went to college and then law school.
And it wasn't until at Pace that I didn't have to be the- the tough kid.
I wanted to talk not just to my friends, but to my favorite counselors, to my favorite teachers. 00:37:43And I stopped looking at adults as the enemy, really.
Lawanda Ravoira, who used to be the president of Pace, says it's crucial to find out what's driving girls' criminal behavior.
One of the major challenges that we have is that so many of the girls coming into the system have serious mental health issues that have gone untreated and we expect the juvenile justice system to be the mental health provider.
Ravoira's policy center partners with Florida's department of juvenile justice to provide that care. Sometimes that's group therapy for girls who are detained.
JENNA KRAMER, COUNSELOR:
You all have powerful voices. To me, I see a lot of leaders in this room.
And counselors like Jenna Kramer will stick with these girls after they get out.
So when you're back at home, you're out, you have that opportunity to make those shifts.
The policy center also helps girls incarcerated far away stay in touch with their families and therapists with counseling sessions via web cam.
The Jacksonville area locks up girls at higher rates than other parts of the state. Brooke Brady heads the juvenile division for the local state attorney's office and says it can be explained in part by an uptick in violent crime.
Unfortunately, there are some cases that it may be a first offense, but it's extremely violent, and we feel that that person's a danger to the community.
Brady also says sometimes her office has no choice but to pursue incarceration for girls repeatedly violating probation.
And to get them the services that they need if they're not staying at home and cooperating with that, unfortunately, commitment's the only alternative at that point.
If there's any way to divert a case, we certainly look to do that.
Brady says Girls Court has helped her with that. Her office gets more information about the situations of girls like Soozee Stuart. Improving the chances they will get services rather than a sentence.
Soozee's been straight for a long time. I trust her.
Judge Gooding works with attorneys on both sides, probation officers and counselors to keep girls on track. They've all pooled existing resources to make girls court happen.
We try to reach the girl where she is. We try to provide a support system, not only for her, but also her family. / Whatever the needs of the girl might be.
The team got Stuart counseling at the policy center and into the Pace Center for Girls. Now they're trying to find childcare for her two-year-old daughter.
You're more articulate than a lot of the lawyers I hear. I know you can do this.
For the first time, Stuart says she has hope.
Even when I don't want to do it no more, they continuously push me. "No, you have to do it. Remember, you got a baby. You have to do it. You can't give up." So, then I start thinking like that. Even when I want to throw in the towel, I have to tell myself, "No, I can't. I can't."
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