Reports Point to Need for Gender-Responsive Reforms for LGBTQ Youth in the Justice System

Two reports produced by Impact Justice researchers found evidence that LGBTQ and gender non-conforming youth continue to be overrepresented in juvenile justice systems across the country and that the percentage of young women and girls who identify as such may be much higher than for boys. The reports highlight a need for comprehensive reform that begins with an intersectional lens in developing gender-responsive programming.

In Reflections on New National Data on LGBQ/GNCT Youth in the Justice System, authors Angela Irvine and Aisha Canfield use data from a survey performed in detention centers across the country to provide recommendations for juvenile justice stakeholders. The report abbreviates lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, gender non-conforming and transgender as LGBTQ/GNCT.

Published in the 2017 issue of the Harvard Kennedy School’s LGBTQ Policy Journal, the article is based on surveys collected from 1,400 youth in seven juvenile detention halls across the country. The data was collected by administering a national survey for a period of two to four months during 2013 and 2014.

The survey found that LGBTQ and gender non-conforming youth are approximately twice as likely to have a history of running away and homelessness prior to entering the system. The data also shows a significant gender disparity. LGBTQ and gender non-conforming young women and girls make up about 40 percent of the female population surveyed, while similar-identifying boys constitute 13 percent of the male population in the juvenile detention facilities.

The authors suggest that due to the trauma faced by LGBTQ and gender non-conforming youth, juvenile justice systems must better respond to their needs and ensure that any referrals are culturally affirming.

For example, programming originally designed for boys should not serve female or LGBTQ and gender non-conforming youth. Programming should be created and developed with an intersectional lens affirming the many dimensions of girls’ identities and should consider race, sexual identity and gender expression.

A second report by Canfield and Irvine, Lesbian, Bisexual, Questioning, Gender Non-Conforming, and Transgender (LGBQ/GNCT) Girls in the Juvenile Justice System, reveals that these girls endure threats to their safety and mental health behind detention center doors.

Irvine and Canfield stress that some juvenile justice staff members are ill-equipped to serve LGBTQ and gender non-conforming youth. In most jurisdictions across the country, when a youth enters the probation system, officers assess the youth’s risks and needs. However, these needs and risk assessments fail to consider the context of the life of LGBTQ and gender non-conforming girls, such as truancy committed as a possible reaction to homophobic bullying or family conflict linked to relatives’ disapproval of a young person’s sexual orientation or gender expression.

For most LGBTQ and gender non-conforming girls, contact with the juvenile justice system and detention in secure facilities can perpetuate this trauma. Literature presented in the report found that 10 percent of LGBTQ and gender non-conforming youth were sexually assaulted in secure facilities, compared to 1.5 percent of straight youth.

In addition, youth of color in the juvenile system continue to grow at a disproportionately alarming rate. In 2012, youth of color made up 80 percent of youth in the justice system, an overwhelming increase when compared with 1985, when youth of color made up 43 percent of youth in the system, according to the article. In California’s juvenile justice system, 90 percent of girls are latina, black, or more than one racial identity, the article said.

Irvine and Canfield’s recommendations aim to make mental health programming more sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ and gender non-conforming youth. They call for justice and mental health professionals to acquire training that fosters awareness and competence of race, gender, class and sexual biases. Further, the authors suggest that detention facilities should have anti-discrimination policies in place.

Juvenile probation departments should partner with LGBTQ centers and advocates to draft anti-discrimination policies, the authors said, and these policies should also include accessible grievance procedures. It’s recommended that probation officers use the preferred names and pronouns of the youth.

The paper also recognizes additional research must be collected to better understand the needs of these youth.

Read the LGBTQ Policy Journal article here and the LBQ/GNCT mental health article here.

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Marisol Zarate
About Marisol Zarate 16 Articles
Marisol Zarate is a summer intern for Fostering Media Connections. She is a rising senior at Stanford University majoring in urban studies. After graduation, she aspires to attend law school and become a public defender.