The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How sexually abused girls are still ending up in jails and prisons

A new report on the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline says victims continue to be punished for the violence they endure

A teenage girl in detention. (
6 min

In 2015, researchers coined a phrase to describe a little-discussed cycle they said was destroying the lives of American girls: the “sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline.”

Their report argued that victimized girls, especially girls of color, were being unjustly punished. Girls running away from abusive homes: arrested for truancy. Girls being sold by traffickers: locked up for prostitution. Again and again, the researchers at Georgetown University and the nonprofit Rights4Girls argued, the systems that were supposed to be helping abuse survivors were actually harming them.

Before long, their report was everywhere they had hoped it would be. In training sessions for social workers and jail employees. In bills proposed to change state and federal law. It was even cited in a speech by President Barack Obama.

But eight years later, despite the attention paid to their research, despite the #MeToo movement, despite the nationwide reckoning over systemic racism, the researchers say abused girls are still facing a crisis. A report unveiled Monday, titled “Criminalized Survivors: Today’s Abuse to Prison Pipeline for Girls,” details the failing laws, stubborn policies and lack of reforms keeping a vicious cycle at work.

“What messages are we sending when it’s the survivor of sexual abuse who is the one who gets locked up?” said report co-author Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of Georgetown Law School’s Center on Gender Justice and Opportunity.

The new report focuses on the specific charges being faced by girls, who are considered more likely than boys to be arrested on low-level offenses.

The number of girls arrested on charges of prostitution or “commercialized vice” has greatly decreased since the previous report, with the most recent arrest data, from 2020, showing at least 110 minors being charged with that offense. But the report’s authors say they think that statistic is highly inaccurate, in part because of the very reforms for which they advocated.

In states where lawmakers successfully banned the arrest of minors for prostitution, police and prosecutors often take teenagers into custody anyway. But instead of charges of prostitution, their paperwork lists “proxy” or “masking” charges, such as loitering, drug possession or disorderly conduct.

Sex-trafficked kids are crime victims. In Las Vegas, they still go to jail.

Some argue that in the absence of residential programs to provide victims of trafficking the support they need, putting them in detention — where they can at least spend time away from their abusers, drugs and other dangers — is the next best thing.

The authors strongly disagree.

“The regular conditions of confinement are traumatic for any child,” said co-author Yasmin Vafa, the executive director of Rights4Girls. But for victims of sexual abuse, and especially victims of trafficking, she said, “things like strip searches, the use of isolation or solitary confinement, basically being told when and where to go at all times and the use of restraints” can be exponentially harmful.

Low-level offenses are far from the only charges victims of abuse face, the report concludes.

Victims of child sex trafficking are being charged with recruiting other victims, leading to long prison sentences and registration as sex offenders.

“This practice, which holds child victims liable as traffickers themselves, fails to recognize the broader circumstances: that is, the violence, coercion, threats, manipulation, and other forms of control that traffickers use to force their victims to exploit other children,” Vafa and Epstein wrote.

Then there are the victims of sexual abuse who try to escape abuse and end up facing life in prison.

The report examines six cases of abuse victims, all girls of color, charged with murder. Some of the cases have attracted the attention of celebrities and social media masses in recent years.

Among them is Chrystul Kizer, who was 17 years old when she was charged with murder in the killing of a man who filmed his repeated sexual abuse of her and other Black girls. Kizer told The Washington Post in 2019 that she had acted in self-defense. Wisconsin prosecutors argue that she premeditated the killing to steal the man’s car.

Last year, the state’s Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking ruling that will allow Kizer to argue in court that the crime she committed was a “direct result” of the trafficking she experienced. If a judge and then a jury agree, she may have the chance to be acquitted of some or all of the charges against her.

Other victims charged with similar crimes in the past had no such opportunity. In 2004, 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown was imprisoned for killing a man who paid to abuse her. She spent 15 years in prison before the governor of Tennessee, under pressure from activists and celebrities, granted her clemency.

Brown and other formerly incarcerated survivors of abuse now advocate for victims like Kizer. Sara Kruzan, who spent nearly two decades in prison for killing her abuser at 16, is the namesake of a congressional bill that would allow federal judges to deviate from mandatory minimums when sentencing minors.

Until such laws are a reality, Vafa and Epstein say they hope that their report and its recommendations can serve as a warning sign and study guide for defense lawyers, prosecutors and others who play a role in determining the fate of abuse victims.

If they read the report’s introduction, the first words they come across are those of a teenage survivor of sexual abuse, Pieper Lewis. Like Kizer, Brown and Kruzan, Lewis was charged with killing her abuser. But after two years in a juvenile detention facility, she was sentenced to probation instead of prison time — a sign, for many, of progress.

“My spirit has been burned but still glows through the flames,” Lewis said in court last year. “Hear me roar, see me glow, and watch me grow.”

In November, after five weeks in a court-ordered transition program, Lewis cut off her GPS ankle monitor and fled the facility. She later told the Des Moines Register that she felt unsafe and re-traumatized by her experiences in the adult facility.

As the researchers prepared to release their report, citing Lewis’s story as another example of the abuse-to-prison pipeline, Lewis herself was back in a jail uniform, pleading guilty to new criminal charges for running away.

A judge is expected to decide next month how she will be punished.