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Angela Irvine Headshot

Reversing the Criminalization of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Teens

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Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama Administration have pledged to reduce America's mass incarceration problem and, to their credit, serious efforts are underway towards that goal. But there remains at least one piece of the policy puzzle that requires immediate attention, and offers particular promise to make a lasting impact on incarceration: a mandate that juvenile justice facilities adopt policies that address the unique needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and gender-non-conforming youth.

We know that 15 percent of all youth in the system are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or gender-non-conforming (that is, their biological gender doesn't "match" the way they choose to represent themselves through clothing, hairstyles, or other choices). As with the rest of the juvenile justice population, the majority of these youth are African American and Latino. And data tell us that these teens are at higher risk for negative outcomes, including negative educational outcomes, homelessness, and adult justice system involvement.

I have been conducting research on LGB teens in the justice system for several years. As I meet and talk with these young people, their stories bring the spectrum of their needs to life. Their gender and sexual orientation issues can present many challenges: they withdraw and withhold core components of identity from family and friends, struggle with their parents, experience mental health problems, become homeless, get expelled, and face court involvement. The system cycling often begins as these young people turn to drugs or alcohol to cope, or commit so-called "status offenses," which are behaviors like running away and truancy that can get kids arrested but not adults.

One such young man who has been swept into the criminal justice system is "John," a black sixteen-year-old boy whom I met in Chicago. John is a young gay man who experienced high levels of conflict with his family over his sexual orientation. In response, he began running away from home. He entered the juvenile justice system when he was arrested for possession of alcohol -- a status offense. He was released to his family, but ran away again soon after. He currently lives in a homeless shelter.

John is just one of the youth my staff and I have met over the past two years. We have conducted interviews with 145 straight, LGB, and gender-non-conforming youth in San Jose, Oakland, New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. Each story brings the numbers to life in a new way, but all share something in common: young people whose ability to cope is challenged by their struggles with their very selves, and who need help and support to stay out of the juvenile justice system and be successful in the long term.

Now is the time for the federal government to act. A new report titled "A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People With HIV" is being released this week. The report makes concrete recommendations for the Obama Justice Department so that we can start reversing the cycle of criminalization faced by LGB and gender-non-conforming youth.

Among the recommendations promoted by this report, the Obama Administration should most urgently support and promote the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and include key provisions to aid LGB and gender-non-conforming youth. First, the act should deinstitutionalize status offenses, acts which are nonviolent yet the most common entry point for youth to a system that is notoriously difficult to exit. The act must also require training and technical assistance for juvenile justice system workers and administrators on addressing the needs of these youth, and mandate that juvenile justice facilities adopt policies that recognize their unique needs. In so doing, the federal government will not only improve outcomes for LGB and gender-non-conforming youth, but all youth entangled in the juvenile justice system.