How are young women criminalized in America?


“I had the honor of  knowing Sam as a staff at Sanctuary Bistro.  They were very involved in local non-profits before and during their short time at the restaurant. They followed their passion to focus on this amazing work. It takes each of us as individuals working hard to right the systemic wrongs of the world. It is tiring and painful watching injustices happen right before your eyes but it does happen. It is time to become involved, like Sam did to make a difference. One shift to start bringing to light to person. We need to continue to share the stories of “Hope” and other folks that are stuck in the system that “we” created and that “we” are all apart of. The time is now. If you have the ability to make a donation to the Young Women’s Freedom Center, this incredible non-profit, know that a little bit goes the long way. Donate here to help them in building a movement of formerly incarcerated and system involved young women to transform the systems that keep us living in poverty, stuck in cycles of violence, and incarcerated.” – Jennifer

Understanding the Lives of System-Involved Women and Girls

The Story of a Girl Named Hope

Understanding the Lives of System-Involved Women and Girls

Who is Hope?

“Hope was born to tell many of our stories”, a formerly-incarcerated woman explained at the Sister Warriors Convening on July 14th, 2017.

Over 200 system-involved and formerly-incarcerated women and girls from across California gathered to combat their systematic incarceration. Hosted by the Young Women’s Freedom Center, they produced the first “Bill of Rights for System-Involved and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls in California” which speaks to the specific needs of cisgender and transgender women behind bars, on probation or parole, or involved in systems like foster care, welfare, failing schools, homelessness, and more.

They also answered a crucial question: How are young women criminalized in America? Hope is a girl birthed through their own experiences. At the Convening, they narrated the life of a girl who represents them. A girl who shows how poverty, incarceration, violence, racism, sexism, and government intertwine to alter the course of their lives.

Hope’s First Years

  • Hope is a child of color born to a poor teenage mother.
  • She never has the chance to go to daycare or attend preschool.
  • Hope does not see herself reflected in the media, in her toys, or in the world at large.
  • She lacks healthy foods and health care.
  • Trying to meet Welfare to Work requirements, Hope’s mother is forced to leave Hope with relatives and others while she earns a living.
  • Hope is also resilient and accepts the message “this is just how life is.”

From Ages Six to Twelve

  • Hope experiences neglect, and sexual and physical abuse. She gets used to violence.
  • In school, Hope’s brilliance is overlooked. She is underestimated and penalized for asking questions.
  • She is placed in Special Education classes, even though she does not have a learning or other disability.
  • She develops a lack of self-confidence and becomes depressed.
  • A teacher calls Child Protective Services and Hope’s mother loses custody of her.
  • She begins acting out in school.
  • There are zero-tolerance policies at school, so Hope is suspended.
  • She is ultimately expelled from school for her emotional struggles stemming from the lack of support and care she receives.

Teenage Years

  • Hope is diagnosed with a mental health disorder and placed on psychotropic medications that make it difficult for her to concentrate.
  • Hope comes out as bisexual and faces harassment.
  • She is arrested for shoplifting things she needs, like hygiene products and food.
  • Because the education programs in juvenile hall are inconsistent and inadequate, Hope falls too far behind to graduate from high school.
  • When she is released, Hope goes into a group home.
  • As a minor on her own, Hope can’t get a job or sign a lease.
  • She begins to support herself by stealing and selling drugs.
  • She ends up back in juvenile hall several times.

Early Adulthood

  • Seeking community, Hope joins a gang.
  • She sometimes uses violence to defend herself and makes dangerous choices.
  • Hope is in an abusive relationship. She wants to leave, but she stays because she is dependent on her partner for housing.
  • When she does decide to leave, Hope becomes homeless. Staying with family is not an option for her.
  • Hope begins to exchange sex for shelter and then for resources.
  • Hope uses substances to cope and quickly becomes dependent on them.
  • Shortly after her 18th birthday, Hope goes to jail.
  • She does not have adequate mental health care or access to treatment for her addiction.
  • At 19 Hope gives birth to a daughter named Dream.

The obstacles and forms of violence that women and girls face are distinct, socially invisible, and largely unaddressed. The Sentencing Project reports that, “the rate of growth for female imprisonment has outpaced men by more than 50% between 1980 and 2014.”

With 1.2 million women on probation or parole, or in juvenile halls, jails, or prisons (The Sentencing Project), it is more important than ever that we look at the whole picture if we Hope to create change.




Sam Brooks is the Operations Director of the Young Women’s Freedom Center and a senior undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. Sam is studying Political Theory and Queer and Feminist Theory and plans to complete a PhD focusing on Queer Theory.

Twitter: @sambrookspoli
Donate here to help them in building a movement of formerly incarcerated and system involved young women to transform the systems that keep us living in poverty, stuck in cycles of violence, and incarcerated.


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