According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 728,280 teens were arrested across the country during 2018 and 37,529 of which were held in numerous juvenile facilities. Of those justice-involved youth, an estimate of 20% identified as LGBTQ - that’s twice the rate at which LGBTQ individuals are represented within the general population. In a survey conducted in selected juvenile detention facilities across the U.S., 40% of the total female population identified as LGBTQ, and out of all the respondents, 85% were youths of color. In recent years, advocates have begun to ask a new question: why is the LGBTQ population so overrepresented within the juvenile justice system?
What Leads LGBTQ Youth to Offend?
One of the biggest contributors to LGBTQ youth involvement with the juvenile justice system is homelessness. Once on the street, these teens can feel like they have no other option but to resort to committing survival crimes, such as prostitution, theft, or participation in various drug-related offenses. These types of violations lead to an LGBTQ youth having interactions with police officers, which then leads to incarceration in a juvenile detention center.
Other issues that can lead to LGBTQ youth involvement in the justice system relate to poor experiences at school. Most LGBTQ teens report having experienced some form of discrimination, harassment, or abuse at their school. These situations can lead to them feeling compelled to fight back if physically assaulted or to skip school entirely to avoid high-risk situations. A recent poll entitled the National School Climate Study found that about one-third of LGBTQ youth reported having skipped school for harassment or safety concerns. Truancy is often treated as a criminal charge for juveniles, which can lead to them being arrested.
LGBTQ Youth and Juvenile Detention: Experiences
The experiences of LGBTQ teens within detention centers are often just as unfortunate as the experiences that led them to offend in the first place. These adolescents encounter harassment and sexual assault at much higher rates than heterosexual youth in detention.
In 2017, the Williams Institute released an analysis of the National Survey of Youth in Custody, to assess the experiences of lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) teens specifically. The Institute found that 15% of LGB males and 4.5% of LGB females in custody reported having sexual contact with a staff member within their detention facility, versus 8.9% of heterosexual boys and 2.2% of heterosexual girls. The rate of sexual assault by peers within the center is even higher: 20.6% for LGB males and 6.7% for LGB young women, versus 1.9% for heterosexual men and 4.1% for heterosexual women. When LGBTQ teens are placed in adult facilities, they experience sexual abuse at five times the rate of those in juvenile detention.
For transgender youth, the inadequacy of detention health care is even more evident because few juvenile justice professionals understand the health needs of transgenders. For these adolescents, the availability of transition-related hormones or puberty-delaying hormone blockers is a necessity. Interrupting the transition process once it has already been started can be both physically and psychologically damaging to transgender youth. Often, these treatments are not available in detention facilities and the individual must have their legal counsel seek a court order to receive it. Justice-involved transgender teens also face the issue of being assigned to a facility based on the gender on their birth certificate, rather than the gender they identify with. This can cause issues especially for male-to-female transgender youth; as they have feminized appearances, being placed with males leads to an even higher risk of sexual assault or harassment.
Reformed Approaches and Juvenile Justice Tools
One country-wide change that has benefited LGBTQ youth is the passing of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which sets basic standards for the treatment of detained individuals, including LGBTQ youth, to reduce the chances of a person being sexually assaulted while in custody.
In Massachusetts, the Department of Youth Services has implemented policy changes to address the needs of the LGBTQ youth in its juvenile detention facilities. The policy prohibits discrimination against or harassment of LGBTQ youth, and allows transgender teens to shower and dress in private, dress codes that apply equally to males and females, and additional training for staff. The state also adopted the PREA standards to help prevent rape and sexual assault within their facilities.
While these changes mark important victories for LGBTQ youth that are involved with the juvenile justice system, additional changes are needed to prevent them from even coming to a detention center. From youth homeless shelters to support centers, mental health services, and therapies that work with the whole family, there is a multitude of juvenile justice tools that could be implemented to reduce LGBTQ incarceration rates. In the opinion of one LGB youth who wrote an essay on the harassment she experienced while in the juvenile justice system, “We need guidance — not abandonment.”
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