Concerns raised about LGBTQ+ youth in jail

MSU Today

New MSU study reveals disproportionate incarceration rates of LGBTQ+ youth in juvenile justice system.

Despite representing only 10.5 percent of the U.S. population, the LGBTQ+ community makes up 28 percent of youth incarcerations in the juvenile justice system, according to researchers.

A recent Michigan State University-led study has found a strong correlation between the high incarceration rates of LGBTQ+ youth, and the myriad of inter-institutional and inter-systemic factors that constitute the forms of structural vulnerabilities they face as a group.

Their study found that queer and trans youth had a 90 percent higher probability of being incarcerated for prostitution and related charges compared to their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts.

In addition, queer and trans youth that were detained more than once in the past year had a 500 percent higher probability of being incarcerated for these charges compared to straight and cisgender youth.

Structural vulnerabilities are defined as “inequities generated by structural factors and the ways in which institutions interact to restrict marginalized groups’ agency, perpetuate their oppression, and subject them to violence,” said Jax Kynn, doctoral student at Michigan State University’s School of Social Work and graduate research assistant for the Consortium on Sexual and Gender Minority Health.

Some of these factors include societal norms that value cisgender identities and heterosexuality, as they tend to underlie policies and practices that permit differential treatment of LGBTQ+ youth.

Other factors include anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes which “normalize the disparate treatment of these youth, defines these youths’ identities as deviant, and undermine their access to affirming and supportive services,” said Hannah Boyke, doctoral student at Michigan State University’s School of Social Work.

For LGBTQ+ youth, this structural vulnerability often stems from their experiences of homelessness, family rejection and child welfare involvement, which intensifies their risk of encountering law enforcement and/or the juvenile justice system compared to their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts.

The out-of-home situations many of these youth find themselves in prompts their reliance on alternative means of meeting needs, including survival sex.

Unlike sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, survival sex does not necessarily imply exploitation. It encompasses an exchange of a sexual act for anything of value — like money, food, clothes or shelter. The group uses this term as it acknowledges the agency of youth in the decisions to engage in survival sex — which aligns with a trauma-informed framework.

While in custody in juvenile detention facilities, queer and trans are at a heighten risk of experiencing violence, which often goes unnoticed or unacknowledged by staff. When facilities do respond to the abuse, they often place LGBTQ+ youth in protective isolation — which exacerbates their experiences of criminalization and social isolation. The research group suggests that the sparse data in Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression, or SOGIE, in the juvenile justice system has been a detrimental factor in protecting LGBTQ+ youth.

“This type of data is not typically collected and given that almost every state/county juvenile legal system has its own set of standard practices, it is difficult to coordinate a uniform means of collecting this kind of data,” said Kynn. “But without SOGIE data, there is no ‘evidence’ to demonstrate the desperate need for practices, services, and supports that are tailored to LGBTQ+ youth.”

In addition to more comprehensive data collection by states, the research team also suggests the need for systemic reform at every level of the criminal legal, child welfare and juvenile justice systems. This is to ensure “LGBTQ+ youths’ protection from discrimination when attempting to access supportive services like housing, interacting with law enforcement, encountering the child welfare system, undergoing court and when incarcerated in juvenile facilities,” said Boyke.

“We hope that our paper demonstrates the need to incorporate structural competency into training and technical assistance, which can illustrate how the current system ignores the needs of these youth while perpetuating myths about the criminality of this population,” said Kynn. “Policies must similarly change to ensure that there is adequate sexual orientation and gender identity data collection to promote accountability and transparency.”