January 09, 2014

How LGBT Youth Get Caught in the Juvenile Justice System and What Can be Done

This post originally appeared on Spark Action

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) students are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.

According to the Center for American Progress, approximately 300,000 LGBT students are arrested or detained each year. Of that figure, 60 percent are black and Latino youth. The numbers are even more devastating when you compare the percentage of LGBT youth to the overall youth population. Although LGBT youth represent 5-7 percent of the nation’s youth population, they represent 13-15 percent of those in the juvenile justice system.

According to a report put out by the Center for American Progress (CAP), increased levels of incarceration are a consequence of various issues; some of them interrelated, ranging from victimization in schools, to abandonment by families and communities.Others are caught in the vicious cycle of the juvenile justice system because they identify as LGBT. They find themselves in juvenile detention facilities as a result of discrimination, abuse, and harassment in their schools. These situations which LGBT students encounter in schools force them to skip class or school all together to escape harassment in schools or out of fear for their own safety. 

GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey found that approximately one-third of LGBT students have skipped school over safety concerns related to bullying or harassment. As a result, CAP's report indicates that many LGBT youth end up in the courtroom on criminal charges because of being truant.

This is where the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) comes in as a critical piece of legislation. Youth of color and LGBT youth of color continue to receive disparate treatment throughout the juvenile justice system, from arrest to adjudication to confinement.  The JJDPA will go a long way in ensuring that juveniles in the system are protected by federal standards for custody and for care, while also ensuring that the interests of community safety are met.

The JJDPA protects youth who have run away from home or skipped school from being detained in juvenile detention facilities. The JJDPA also has provisions designed to protect youth from psychological abuse, physical assault, and isolation by ensuring that youth are not detained in adult jails.

Finally, the JJDPA requires states to address the disproportionate contact of youth of color at all points in the juvenile justice system. With youth of color making up one-third of the total youth population but two-thirds of youth in contact with the juvenile justice systems, this provision requires states to gather information and assess the reason for disproportionate minority contact. All youth would benefit from the protections outlined in the JJDPA, particularly LGBT youth and LGBT youth of color.

Sarah Munshi

About Sarah Munshi

Sarah is GLSEN's Public Policy Associate based in Washington, D.C.

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