Exploring the Overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

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Author: Katie Dodds is a Summer 2020 Communications Intern at CJJ

June is Pride Month. As we celebrate the advances made toward the acceptance and rights of the LGBTQ+ community, let us also be reminded of the progress yet to be seen and motivated to continue the fight for equality. In addition to dealing with the same universal adolescent challenges as their heterosexual, cisgender peers, LGBTQ+ youths are more likely to endure additional hardships such as harassment at school, depression and suicidal ideations, substance abuse problems, and homelessness. Notably, LGBTQ+ youths are also overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, which is under-equipped to accommodate their unique needs and experiences.

While lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths comprise just 5-7% of youths in the United States, these groups comprise approximately 20% of youths incarcerated in the youth criminal justice system. And of the female incarcerated population, lesbian and bisexual youths comprise almost 40%. What factors might account for this troubling overrepresentation?

Firstly, queer and transgender youths are often abandoned by their families and communities, leaving them lacking essential support networks. 4 in 10 LGBTQ+ youths report that their communities are not accepting of LGBTQ+ people. LGBTQ+ youths are also more likely to be victimized at school; according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, self-identifying lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths, and youths questioning their sexualities, are more likely to report experiencing bullying at school, cyberbullying, and safety concerns causing them to skip school. And compared with their peers, LGBTQ+ youths (especially homeless LGBTQ+ youths) are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behaviors such as sex work.

Once LGBTQ+ youths enter the juvenile justice system, they continue to face discrimination. These youths encounter bias during adjudication; they are more likely to be detained awaiting trial, treated disrespectfully during court proceedings, and committed to residential facilities. Within these facilities, incarcerated LGBTQ+ youths are subject to harassment, physical assault, and sexual assault, both by other incarcerated youths and by facility staff members. They might also be forced into prolonged solitary confinement, including “for their safety” on the grounds of protection from victimization. Transgender and gender non-conforming youths are frequently misplaced based on considerations only of their birth sexes or on their genitalia rather than on their gender identities or gender expressions, which increases the probability that they will endure violence during their incarcerations. LGBTQ+ youths may even be subjected to traumatic, involuntary conversion therapy in facilities. 

Upon their release from juvenile justice facilities, the juvenile justice system continues to fail LGBTQ+ youths. The system is generally lacking in programs to help reconnect youths reentering society from juvenile facilities with necessary supportive services related to housing, healthcare, and education. LGBTQ+ youths, in particular, may have a harder time finding somewhere to live, especially if they have experienced family or community rejection; returning to school, especially if their schools are unsafe for them because of their gender and/or sexual identities; securing employment; and accessing adequate healthcare, as not all providers understand the unique needs of transgender individuals. 

This Pride Month, let’s continue to advocate for LGBTQ+ youths who are already or might in the future become involved in the juvenile justice system. Let’s institute programs to serve LGBTQ+ youths by providing them with information, resources, and a sense of community to lessen their likelihood of becoming involved with the system. Let’s get rid of zero-tolerance policies in schools that propagate the school-to-prison pipeline for LGBTQ+ youths. Let’s fix the loopholes in the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Let’s demand reformed placement protocols for transgender and gender non-conforming youths in juvenile facilities, improved healthcare for incarcerated LGBTQ+ youths, and better training for facility staff on LGBTQ+ issues. Let’s work toward holistic reentry support systems that address the unique challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community. (See a more-comprehensive list of recommended reforms here.) 


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