29 June 2012

How Gay And (Especially) Transgender Youth Are Criminalized

Members of "minority" groups who experience discrimination have long been over-represented in jails and prisons.  This has been documented at least since the 1960's; probably the first groups to be recognized as disproportionately incarcerated were African-Americans and Latinos.

Now a new report shows that the percentage of the young people in the juvenile justice system who are gay or transgender is double the percentage of GT youth in the general population.  

Some of the reasons for this include the fact that many LGBT youth are abandoned by their families and rejected by their communities.  This is practically a recipe for homelessness, which is one of the leading causes of crime among young people.  Even those young people who drop out of school and leave home on their own accord to escape bullying and harassment are at increased risk of turning to crime simply to support themselves.  After all, what marketable skills do most teenagers possess?

Also implicated in the high numbers of LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system are biased school discipline policies.  Research shows that gender non-conforming youth in particular are often singled out for severe punishment for minor infractions--or for no infractions at all.  As an example, a "butchy" girl who defends herself against kids who beat and harass her is identified as the aggressor, and punished as such, solely for her demeanor.  That is, of course, to say nothing of the "sissy boys" of whom teachers and school administrators make examples because, well, those teachers and administrators are bullies who happen to be old enough to be teachers and administrators.  And--I can tell you this from firsthand experience--they sometimes punish the "sissy" or "tomboy" who's picked on because they're afraid of the kids who are picking on them.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the so-called juvenile justice system is that gay and transgender youth are often classified as sex offenders, even though they have not committed sexual crimes.  Being falsely accused of sex crimes, and branded as a sex offender, is one of the worst things that can happen to anyone:  Even after the person is proven innocent, he or she lives with the stigma of the charge, possibly for the rest of his or her life.  In fact, homophobic and transphobic people often accuse transgenders--especially male-to-females--of sexual crimes simply because they hate or have disputes with them.  

Once detained, trans youth are housed according to the sex they were assigned at birth rather than the one by which they're conducting their lives.  They and gay youth are also more likely to be placed in solitary confinement, ostensibly "for their own safety" but in reality because of stereotypes that persist among staff members.  Studies by the American Psychiatric Association show that such isolation leads to stigmatization, which leads to depression and a host of other problems.  The problems caused by isolation make those young people who are placed in solitary confinement more likely to return to the juvenile justice system.

The article I've linked makes a number of recommendations, all of which make sense to me.  Even if all of them were implemented, though, it will still take a long time to break the cycle of criminalization in LGBT youth.  The experience with racial and ethnic minorities showed us as much:   As long as young people have to experience unfair discrimination and attend bad schools in hostile communities without supportive family structures, they will always be at higher risk, no matter how many laws we pass or how many training programs we start in schools and juvenile centers.

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