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Articles tagged with: LGBTQ

LGBT youths especially vulnerable in adult jails

Tuesday, 28 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Rick Mula

The visitation room at the Alabama county jail was tiny. The beige cinderblock walls pressed in on the public defender and me as we waited for the guards to escort our 17-year-old client into the room.

J.W. had already spent four months confined to an adult jail cell. He hadn’t even been tried for a crime yet. But in Alabama, as well as other states, children as young as 16 can be automatically tried as an adult for certain crimes. They can also be held in adult jails as they await trial.

And that’s why J.W. was now sitting in this tiny room.

He’d been swept up in the adult criminal justice system, like so many other kids. An estimated 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year across the U.S. What’s more, LGBT youths are vastly overrepresented. Despite making up no more than 7 percent of the overall youth population, they make up about 20 percent of the youths in the juvenile justice system. Most of these young people, like J.W., are children of color.

J.W. tells me that he used to identify as bisexual. He says that after he disclosed his sexual orientation, a corrections officer assumed he was promiscuous and called him a “ho.” The message was loud and clear: Bisexual individuals would be singled out. J.W. says he now identifies as straight. As someone who works to educate LGBT youths about their legal rights, I can’t help but wonder if he is avoiding identifying as bisexual to protect himself from more mistreatment.

What is certain, and worth remembering during Pride month, is that there are many LGBT youths in adult jails across this country. High rates of family rejection, hostile teachers and classmates at school as well as inappropriate foster care placements take their toll on LGBT youths. They may run away from home, skip school or abuse substances to cope – all activities that increase their chances of a brush with the law. LGBT youths are also more likely to be prosecuted for age-appropriate consensual sexual activity than their peers.

Once in adult jails, there’s little opportunity for rehabilitation or education that can get a young person’s life back on track, whether they are LGBT or not. I learned, for example, that J.W. attended a GED class sporadically for a couple months, but the class ended without warning or explanation.

Of course, one of the greatest concerns about placing a child in an adult jail is the threat of physical and sexual abuse. The problem is particularly acute for LGBT youths. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that 6.3 percent of LGBT youths reported sexual victimization compared to 1.7 percent of heterosexual youths.

Authorities may point out that federal law requires facilities to maintain “sight and sound separation” between young people and adults, but solitary confinement is often the only way to accomplish this goal. Confining a child or teen to a small four-walled cell for hours on end raises a host of other dangers – depression, anxiety and psychosis, for example – particularly for kids because of their developmental vulnerability.

It’s clear that jail is no place for young people, such as J.W.

The statistics and stories may be grim, but the situation is not hopeless. There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the number of juveniles in the criminal justice system and help youths in adult facilities. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Promote family acceptance interventions, which can help a youth avoid rejection that can put him or her on a path into the criminal justice system.
  • Urge your senators and representatives to support reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
  • Promote the development of LGBT-inclusive policies and procedures throughout your community to prevent LGBT youths from feeling isolated.
  • Learn more about campaigns to raise the age a juvenile can be tried as an adult – an important step toward preventing children from ending up in adult facilities.


As I think back to my visit with J.W., I remember how he beamed. He was so happy to have a visitor. Despite his situation, he eagerly chatted about Ariana Grande’s greatest hits and talked about his favorite movies and TV shows. J.W. may be behind bars, but he’s not that different from other kids his age. He’s just doing his best to survive an environment that was never meant for any child.

We need to do our best to keep kids like J.W. out of adult jails.


Rick Mula is an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center where he is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Mansfield Family Foundation.

Young, Queer, and Locked Up: LGBT Youth in the Adult Criminal Justice System

Christina Gilbert and Hannah Hussey Thursday, 18 June 2015 Posted in 2015, Voices

In April 2014, a sixteen-year-old transgender girl of color and trauma survivor was placed in an adult correctional facility by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, which claimed the young woman was too violent to be housed elsewhere. Despite the fact that she had not been charged with or convicted of any crime, Jane Doe remained in the adult prison for two months, much of it in solitary confinement, before being transferred and subsequently placed in a juvenile detention facility for boys.

Unfortunately, situations like Jane's – in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) young people become involved with the adult criminal justice system – are all too common. While research about LGBT youth in the adult criminal justice system is scarce, statistics from the juvenile justice system illuminate a disproportionality that likely holds true in adult jails and prisons as well. Most estimates suggest that LGBT youth comprise 5 to 7 percent of the overall youth population, and yet approximately 20 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system self-identify as LGBT. Most of these youth are young people of color. New data suggest that the numbers for girls are even higher, with approximately 40 percent of all girls in the juvenile justice system identifying as LGBT or gender-nonconforming.

Research on the juvenile justice system likewise demonstrates that LGBT young people come into contact with law enforcement officers and the courts for a variety of reasons. LGBT youth are more likely than their peers to be detained for status offenses such as truancy or running away from home, probation violations, and engaging in survival crimes such as sex work. They are also more likely to be homeless and to struggle with substance use and abuse. Often, these behaviors stem from deeper issues related to the young person's sexual orientation or gender identity, such as family rejection, hostile school climates, or inappropriate foster care placements. Once in the juvenile justice system, lesbian, gay, and bisexual young people experience youth-on-youth sexual victimization at a rate that is nearly seven times higher than that of their heterosexual peers. LGBT youth are also more likely to be put into isolation by facilities who fear they are a threat to other youth or "for their own protection," despite the severe mental health risks posed by solitary confinement.

The experiences of LGBT youth echo those of LGBT people of all ages. LGBT youth and adults experience bias and discrimination at all stages of court proceedings. Certain drivers of incarceration for LGBT individuals contribute to this effect. LGBT people, particularly LGBT individuals of color, face pervasive discrimination in systems ranging from employment to housing to education. LGBT youth and adults are also profiled by police based on intersections of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, as well as age, religion, disability, or immigration status.

Information about juveniles in juvenile justice settings is also informative in uncovering the experiences of LGBT young people in jails and prisons. Most youth in the adult criminal justice system are there for non-violent offenses. Many of them have never been convicted and are housed in adult jails and prisons while waiting for a trial. These youth face abusive conditions and often receive little or no rehabilitative treatment or education. Under federal law, incarcerated youth must be separated from adults for their own protection – which in practice often results in solitary confinement. This isolation has extremely negative physical and mental health effects, particularly on children. And according to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, "more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse."

Numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that lesbian, gay, and bisexual sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in adult jails and prisons experience higher rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization – 6.3 percent of non-heterosexual youth compared to 1.7 percent of heterosexual youth, although the study included only a small sample of non-heterosexual youth. Beyond those statistics, little data exists on the specific experiences of LGBT youth in the adult system. Taken together, however, the research on LGBT youth, incarcerated LGBT adults, and youth in the adult system suggest that LGBT youth in adult jails and prisons experience multiple vulnerabilities, opening them up to discrimination and harassment from multiple systems.

Many states require that youth charged with a sex offense be tried in the adult system – one example of an area that impacts LGBT youth in unique ways. While "Romeo and Juliet" laws can reduce or remove penalties for consensual sex between adolescents who are close in age, these provisions have not always applied evenly to LGBT individuals. More recently, researchers found a public bias toward punishing gay youth more severely than heterosexual youth for consensual sex with another young person.

Where numbers are lacking pertaining to LGBT youth in the adult criminal justice system, anecdotal information indicates extensive trends of discrimination and disproportionate representation and points to troubling attitudes that may disproportionately harm LGBT youth. Such attitudes are visible, for example, when a prosecutor abuses their discretion by arguing that "a youth who is old enough to know their sexual orientation or gender identity is old enough to be tried in the adult system," or when feedback expressed during trainings with The Equity Project include questions about why juvenile justice professionals should bother learning about LGBT cultural competency if "the youth are just going to end up in the adult system" anyway.

LGBT young people, like all youth, need protection, safety, affirmation, and guidance in order to successfully transition to adulthood. They also need to be recognized as the young people they are – young people who are resilient in spite of discrimination, poverty, and abuse; young people who engage in normal adolescent behavior; and young people who have enormous potential. Adult jails and prisons offer no way forward for these young people to obtain the tools they need as they seek to empower themselves and change the world around them.

As we celebrate Pride during the month of June, we should encourage policymakers and advocates to promote fair and equitable treatment for all individuals in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, through promoting and supporting training and technical assistance regarding this population, increasing alternatives to detention, and supporting passage of legislation such as the long overdue reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

Christina Gilbert is the Director of The Equity Project. Hannah Hussey is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.

Raising Awareness for LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

Monday, 01 June 2015 Posted in 2015, Across the Country

 LGBTQ 28129

Resources and legislation that help and protect LGBTQ youth, a marginalized and vulnerable group within the juvenile justice system, are lacking. June is dedicated to raising awareness of the unique challenges that LGBTQ youth face in the system and the path forward to creating reform.

Research conducted by The Equity Project has shown that LGBTQ youths are more likely to confront certain barriers and environmental risk factors connected to their sexual orientations and gender identities. For example, compared with their heterosexual classmates and peers, LGBTQ youths are more likely to experience bullying at school   more likely to experience rejection or victimization perpetrated by their parents/caregivers (often resulting in youths’ running away from home)   more likely to face homelessness   twice as likely to be arrested and detained for status offenses and other nonviolent offenses, and at higher risk for illicit drug use. Available research has estimated that LGBT youths represent 5 percent to 7 percent of the nation’s overall youth population, but they compose 13 percent to 15 percent of those currently in the juvenile justice system.  Schools, law enforcement officers, district attorneys, judges, and juvenile defenders are ill equipped to deal with the challenges that these young people face. As a result, the system often exacerbates previous damage by unfairly criminalizing LGBTQ youth—imposing harsh school sanctions, labeling them as sex offenders, or detaining them for minor offenses, in addition to subjecting them to discriminatory and harmful treatment that deprives them of their basic civil rights.

The Equity Project, guided by experts on juvenile court processing and LGBTQ youth in the justice system, released Hidden Injustice; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth in Juvenile Courts (Fall 2009) to help inform justice professionals about the experiences of LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system. Many of the issues that affect all youth in the justice system — incarceration for misdemeanors, increased time in detention, and disparate impact on minority youth just to name a few—are augmented for LGBTQ youth. The report also identifies key issues specific to LGBTQ youth and makes recommendations for juvenile justice professionals to implement moving forward.

Please join CFYJ this June in learning more about this issue and raising awareness for reform. Follow the Equity Project on Twitter and Facebook.