Criminal justice reforms aimed at LGBT youth will improve conditions for everyone

Criminal justice reforms aimed at LGBT youth will improve conditions for everyone
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In March, Wisconsin lawmakers voted to close the state’s youth prisons after learning of multiple reports of abuse, neglect and excessive use of force. Across the state, corrections officials and youth advocacy groups are convening community meetings to solicit input from residents about how to create a system that is less focused on punishment and more on ensuring the youth will be successful when they return to the community.

A similar reckoning is taking place in New York City now that Rikers Island juvenile facility — a place notorious for violence and abuse — has been shuttered and its residents moved to facilities designed solely for youth. And in Iowa, officials want to expand a juvenile diversion program for low-level offenses such as shoplifting and disorderly conduct that has shown to reduce rates of youth recidivism in Johnson County. 

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These are bold moves to reform systems of juvenile justice. Each is part of a broader, bipartisan trend of criminal justice reform aimed at ending mass incarceration and reducing recidivism. But if we’re truly serious about protecting public safety while also creating a safe, effective therapeutic environment in which to help our youth break the cycle of crime and criminality, we must better understand and treat the needs of LGBT youth.

LGBT youth are especially vulnerable to interactions with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many LGBT youth are rejected by their families and become homeless. With limited or no options, many engage in survival crimes including prostitution, stealing, or participation in the drug trade to meet their survival needs. They also experience rejection in their schools and communities, which correlates with greater chances of criminal justice system involvement.

Indeed, LGBT youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. In 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 856,130 youth were arrested and 45,567 were held in 1,772 residential juvenile facilities across the country.

Up to 20 percent of them identify as LGBT, even though LGBT-identified youth comprise just seven to eight percent of the general youth population. These youth are nearly twice as likely to experience sexual victimization in juvenile facilities and seven times as likely to be victimized by another youth. 

Aside from sexual victimization, LGBT youth in custody experience disproportionate physical and emotional abuse, too. Just last month, for example, a 16-year-old boy was attacked by fellow residents at the St. Johns Youth Academy, a secure residential facility in Florida, because he is openly gay. One of his attackers reportedly told the victim he “didn’t want a faggot in the pod.”

As Wisconsin, Iowa and New York City grapples with juvenile justice reform, they can look Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana and Massachusetts for examples of best practices. These include allowing transgender and intersex youth to shower privately, dress codes that apply equally to all genders, providing private spaces for intake and training staff to identify vulnerable LGBT youth to reduce the chances of physical and sexual victimization.

LGBT cultural competency training for staff and volunteers instills a greater culture of respect, which benefits all youth. For example, private intake spaces not only make it easier for youth to safely disclose if they are LGBT, but also facilitate personal disclosures such as a history of abuse or eating disorders that could aid officials in ensuring all youth in their care get the best possible treatment.

Juvenile justice systems can take steps to reduce victimization against LGBT youth in their care. Staff and volunteers are uniquely positioned to intervene with rehabilitation and therapeutic treatment that dramatically reduce the likelihood of recidivism. This is good for justice-involved youth and public safety alike.

Sean Cahill, PhD, is director of health policy research for The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health and co-author of the policy report “Emerging Best Practices for the Management and Treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Intersex Youth in Juvenile Justice Settings.”