Self-defense for whom?


Our legal system fails young girls when they need help the most, and then punishes them for the result.

In every state in the country, the right to self-defense is considered a mitigating factor in criminal prosecutions. If you use violence to defend yourself in an extreme situation, most Americans believe, the law should treat you gently.

But not everyone gets to enjoy this right. Just ask Bresha Meadows, who was arrested earlier this year for allegedly shooting and killing her father. She was just 14.

Advocates say that prosecutors failed to account for Meadows’ home situation. Her father, they argue, was a violent and abusive man who terrorized her family and threatened to kill them. “In the 17 years of our marriage,” her mother wrote in a court complaint, “he has cut me, broke my ribs, fingers, the blood vessels in my hand, my mouth, blackened my eyes.”

She went on to warn: “I am 100 percent sure he will kill me and the children.”

More troublingly, the evidence suggests authorities had failed Bresha and her family at earlier moments of crisis. Bresha herself cried out for help to family members and repeatedly ran away from home to escape her situation. Yet law enforcement never questioned Meadows without the presence of her father and sent her home every time she tried to escape.

Now 15 and detained in Trumbull County, Ohio, Meadows faces charges for aggravated murder. Denied pre-trial release, she’s been locked up away from family, friends, and school for months. In October, she was placed on suicide watch.

Unfortunately, Meadows’ case is not unique.

In fact, 84 percent of girls in juvenile detention have experienced family violence. And the number of girls in juvenile jail is rising, especially for black girls. Even as a national conversation around mass incarceration and racial profiling gains momentum, black girls like Meadows are often left out. That sends a harmful message that they aren’t valued.

The Meadows case is one of many examples in a larger trend of policies that criminalize girls and leave trauma unaddressed. These systems fail young girls when they need help the most, and then punish them for the result.

“Countless black women, girls, and gender-nonconforming people face similar matrices of interpersonal violence and state violence,” the advocacy group Love and Protect explained in a statement. “Many, like Bresha, are criminalized for choosing survival.”

Worse still, the juvenile justice system doesn’t work to rehabilitate anyone. Instead, it’s often damaging and re-traumatizing, especially for people who come from violent homes. Affordable, community-based solutions that prioritize assessing family security needs over sending teens that lash out to prison would be far preferable to incarcerating traumatized children.

Each day Bresha spends in prison is a reflection that the law doesn’t apply to everyone. “We should be worried about Bresha,” says Mariame Kaba, the founder of Love and Protect. “With the charges they put on her, it could be 25 years to life.”

Though incarceration rates are rising, violence against black girls isn’t new. Our justice system has been failing them for a long time.

A petition is circulating calling for prosecutors to release Bresha Meadows and drop her charges. Like all victims of domestic and family violence, she deserves support. Meadows’ release from detention would send a different message: that black girls’ lives are worthy of defense.

By Nia Nyamweya

Nia Nyamweya is a Next Leader with the Criminalization of Poverty project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Distributed by

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