According to the US Department of Justice, 856,130 juveniles were arrested across the country during 2016, 45,567 of which were held in 1,772 juvenile facilities. Of those 45,567 juveniles, an average of fifteen to eighteen percent identified as LGBTQ--that’s twice the rate at which LGBTQ are represented within the general US population. In a recent survey conducted in selected juvenile detention facilities across the US, forty percent of the total female population identified as LGBTQ, and out of all the LGBTQ respondents, eighty-five percent were youths of color. In recent years, juvenile justice 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 youths can feel like that have no other option but to resort to committing survival crimes, such as prostitution, theft, or participation in various drug-related crimes. These types of survival crimes very often lead to an LGBTQ youth having interactions with police officers, which then leads to incarceration in a juvenile detention facility.
Other issues that can lead to LGBTQ youth involvement in the juvenile justice system relate to poor experiences at school. Most LGBTQ youth report having experienced some form of discrimination, harassment, or abuse at their school. These situations can lead to an LGBTQ youth to feel 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 and sent to detention.
LGBTQ Youth and Juvenile Detention: Experiences
The experiences of LGBTQ youth within detention centers are often just as unfortunate at the experiences that led them to offend in the first place. These youth experience 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 LGB youth specifically. The Institute found that 15% of male LGB youths and 4.5% of female LGB youths in custody reported having sexual contact with a staff member within their detention facility, versus just 8.9% of heterosexual male youths and 2.2% of heterosexual female youths. The rate of sexual assault by peers within the facility is even higher: 20.6% for LGB male youths and 6.7% for LGB female youths, versus 1.9% for heterosexual male youths and 4.1% for heterosexual female youths. When LGBTQ youth are placed in adult facilities, as is typical when states prosecute sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults, they experience sexual assault at five times the rate of those in juvenile facilities.
For transgender youth, the inadequacy of detention health care is even more evident because few juvenile justice professionals understand the health needs of transgender youth. For these youth, 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 a transgender youth. Often, though, these treatments are not available in detention facilities, and the youth must have their legal counsel seek a court order to receive it. Transgender youth in detention 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.
Examples of Reformed Approaches to LGBTQ Youth in Detention
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 youth, including LGBTQ youth, to reduce the chances of a youth being sexually assaulted while in custody. Implementation of PREA standards has been inconsistent, however, with some states opting to not follow the standards at all.
In Massachusetts, the Department of Youth Services has recently 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, allows transgender youth to shower and dress in private, dress codes that apply equally to male and female juveniles, and additional training for staff. The state also adopted the PREA standards to help prevent rape and sexual assault within their juvenile 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 facility. From youth homeless shelters to support centers and therapies that work with the whole family, there are a multitude of options that could be implemented to reduce LGBTQ incarceration rates. In the opinion of one queer youth who wrote an essay on the harassment she experienced while in the juvenile justice system, “We need guidance — not abandonment.”