Why you should care
Because an entire population of kids is being damaged by American justice.
Police disproportionately pack them into the back of patrol cars. Judges are more likely to sentence them to live behind walls of razor wire. Once behind bars, they often end up in solitary confinement, more for their own protection than anyone else’s. And it’s probably not whom you’re picturing. For starters, “they” is “she.” And she isn’t even old enough to vote. But there’s also something to her that isn’t visible.
of girls in the juvenile justice system are lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning or gender-nonconforming.
The findings come out of years of research done by Angela Irvine and Aisha Canfield for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (both now work at Impact Justice). For this particular statistic, they anonymously surveyed 1,400 girls in juvenile jurisdictions around the country. Irvine and Canfield have surveyed thousands of kids and detention officers. Among both boys and girls, roughly 15 percent of juvenile incarcerees identify as LGBT, while the slice of LGBT youth in the general public is estimated to be around 7 percent.
It turns out that LGBT girls are also overrepresented in the child welfare system, which often leads to running away, which leads to homelessness and, in some cases, prostitution. As it is, says Canfield, most end up in juvie for committing so-called survival crimes — petty theft and breaking and entering. LGBT of both sexes are also three times more likely to receive disproportionately harsh consequences at school, while also being the target of harassment. Perhaps surprisingly, LGBT girls are more likely to get in trouble for fighting; for boys, it’s disruptive behaviors in the classroom. “It’s not difficult to put a narrative together as to how they end up here,” Canfield says.
But while it’s easy to blame bias on the juvenile justice system, that’s only a sliver of a puzzling story that researchers can’t yet figure out. For one, cops and judges often don’t know if a kid is LGBT. And sometimes they place them in detention because there’s nowhere else for them. Canfield also thinks that American society has a history of overcorrecting women. What’s more, there is an acronym that goes with much of this particular group: GOC, or girls of color. When we think teenage lesbian, experts say, most of us picture a white girl. In reality, the vast majority in this case — 85 percent — are people of color.
Kjell Luoma, who’s been a juvenile correctional officer in California for 14 years, says he hasn’t necessarily seen this trend firsthand, but in the past year there has been a widespread effort throughout the justice system to be more sensitive to the needs of LGBT incarcerees. Shannon Minter, director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says the answer to addressing the issue isn’t in the criminal justice system; it’s preventing these girls from coming up against it in the first place. “For a long time, we’ve missed the forest for the trees,” Minter says. “We’ve been focusing on how we can better deal with our girls in the system, but we need to acknowledge we can’t. Being locked up is damaging to every single person there. We need to keep them out.”