Center for American Progress

RELEASE: U.S. Juvenile and Criminal Justice Systems Endanger the Lives and Futures of LGBTQ Youth
Press Release

RELEASE: U.S. Juvenile and Criminal Justice Systems Endanger the Lives and Futures of LGBTQ Youth

New report finds that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately likely to face arrest, prosecution, and mistreatment in court and detention. 

Washington, D.C. — A comprehensive new report explores how the U.S. juvenile and criminal justice systems endanger the lives and life chances of young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, or LGBTQ. Among the report’s most alarming findings is that the percentage of LGBT youth in juvenile detention is double that of LGBT youth in the general population; 20 percent of youth in juvenile justice facilities identify as LGBT or gender nonconforming, compared with 7 percent to 9 percent of youth in general.

Unjust: How the Broken Juvenile and Criminal Justice Systems Fail LGBTQ Youth” is the product of an unprecedented coalition of organizations working on issues including LGBT equality, homelessness prevention, education, criminal justice reform, and more. It is available at

“This report confirms once and for all what many of us have known for some time: LGBTQ young people are grossly overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, and it’s no coincidence. We live in a society where discrimination and stigma too often lead to criminalization and mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement,” said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project, or MAP.

The report also explores the widespread causes of the overrepresentation and documents the disparate—and often exceedingly harsh—treatment of LGBT youth by law enforcement, courts, and detention facilities. The new report is a companion to a broader report released earlier this year, “Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People.”

Why are LGBT youth overrepresented in the system?

The “Unjust” report highlights several factors in the overrepresentation of LGBT young people in the juvenile justice system. They include:

  • Pervasive anti-LGBT discrimination and stigma. LGBT youth are uniquely vulnerable to family rejection and mistreatment in child welfare and foster placements. More than half—56 percent—of lesbian and gay youth in New York City’s child welfare system said they had stayed on the streets because their foster care placement was not safe. These experiences dramatically increase the chances that LGBT youth will have interactions with law enforcement.
  • Unsafe schools. LGBT students who are bullied and harassed in school often experience negative impacts including harsher school discipline, increased risk of substance abuse and mental health challenges, missed school, and lower aspirations to attend college. More than half —56 percent—of LGBT middle and high school students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and almost 4 in 10—39 percent—students felt unsafe because of their gender identity or expression. LGBT students, particularly students of color, also are among the groups of students who are more likely to be suspended, expelled, or otherwise removed from school settings—often for relatively minor offenses—in scenarios that are now widely known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
  • Discriminatory enforcement of laws. Researchers find that LGBT young people are at increased risk for criminalization for sexual behavior in comparison with heterosexual youth, even when all other circumstances are the same. For example, a gay youth is more likely to be disciplined for public displays of affection than a heterosexual youth. Research finds that LGBT youth also pay a particularly high price for “quality of life” policing that includes crackdowns on minor crimes and “stop and frisk” policies. These interactions with law enforcement are frequently unsafe for LGBT youth; in New Orleans, 59 percent of transgender youth reported being asked for sexual favors by police.

“Existing policies often provide little promise of equal treatment under law for LGBTQ young people. Our research shows they are more likely to have negative and discriminatory interactions with teachers, foster parents, the child welfare system, and even law enforcement officers,” said Laura E. Durso, Senior Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the of the Center for American Progress, which co-authored the report. “As a result, LGBT young people are dramatically overrepresented in the criminal justice system. It is long past time we looked at the way the education, child welfare, and law enforcement systems interact and continuously fail to provide safety and equality of opportunity for these young people.”

LGBT youth face discrimination and abuse in the system

The report also paints a comprehensive portrait of how LGBT youth are unfairly treated and abused once they enter the juvenile justice system. The following are among the problems it documents:

  • Bias in pretrial release and court proceedings. LGBTQ young people face disadvantages in the arraignment process and are more likely to be placed in a facility to await trial, rather than being sent home. Forty percent of LGBTQ youth in California were held while awaiting adjudication for running away, compared with just 13 percent of non-LGBTQ youth. They also report negative experiences in the court system: 44 percent of LGBTQ youth engaged in survival sex in New York City reported negative experiences with the court system.
  • Mistreatment in juvenile justice facilities. Surveys show that LGBT youth are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and abuse by staff and other youth in juvenile justice facilities. Aggravating the problem is the fact that transgender youth are frequently placed in facilities according to the sex on their birth certificate rather than the gender they live everyday.

“LGBTQ young people are facing unacceptable levels of mistreatment, harassment, and violence in the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” said Shannan Wilber, youth project director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “Their experiences in these systems are a huge threat to their lives and life chances, and we are doing far too little to prepare them for a healthy and productive life after release.”

The “Unjust” report includes numerous stories about people, organizations, and juvenile justice institutions that are advancing positive changes to improve conditions and outcomes for LGBT youth. It also includes a series of recommendations for ensuring fairer treatment of LGBT young people in families, schools, and communities, as well as throughout the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

About the co-authors

The Movement Advancement Project is an independent think tank that provides rigorous research, insight, and analysis that help speed equality for LGBT people. MAP works collaboratively with LGBT organizations, advocates, and funders, providing information, analysis, and resources that help coordinate and strengthen efforts for maximum impact. MAP’s policy research informs the public and policymakers about the legal and policy needs of LGBT people and their families.

The Center for American Progress is a think tank dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through ideas and action. CAP combines bold policy ideas with a modern communications platform to help shape the national debate. CAP is designed to provide long-term leadership and support to the progressive movement. CAP’s policy experts cover a wide range of issue areas and often work across disciplines to tackle complex, interrelated issues such as national security, energy, and climate change.

Report partners

Advancement Project
The Equity Project
Forward Together
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network
Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Campaign Foundation
National LGBTQ Task Force
True Colors Fund
Youth First

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, contact Tom Caiazza at [email protected] or 202.481.7141.

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