In August, 2017, Dr. Angela Irvine released an important report examining new data on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, Gender Nonconforming, and Transgender (LGBQ/GNCT) Youth in the Justice System. Here is a conversation between Reclaiming Futures Executive Director Evan Elkin and Dr. Irvine on the new report.
Evan Elkin: What were the most surprising takeaways from the study?
Dr. Irvine: I have been studying the pathways into the justice system for almost ten years. The first set of findings from 2010 did not diverge as widely across gender.
This time around, we see that, while 12-13% of boys in the justice system are gay, bisexual, questioning, gender nonconforming, or transgender (GBQ/GNCT), there are 40% of girls nationally and 51% of girls in California who identify as LBQ/GNCT. And, of these LGBQ/GNCT youth, 85% nationally and 90% in California are of color. This means that you can’t talk or think about the overrepresentation of LBQ/GNCT girls without addressing racial and ethnic disparities. Race, gender, and sexual orientation are inextricably linked for girls in the justice system.
Evan Elkin: What is driving the overrepresentation of LGBQ/GNCT youth in the juvenile justice system?
Dr. Irvine: These results broadly reflect the reinforcing effects of racial discrimination, homophobia, and transphobia.
This manifests in the daily lives of LGBQ/GNCT youth as what might be called a cradle to justice pipeline. These youth experience rejection by their families, bullying and harassment at school, disproportionate removal from their homes because someone is hurting them, and a failure by the child welfare system to provide affirming placements. In response, many LGBQ/GNCT youth run away and engage in survival activities like sex work for food, clothing, and housing. In turn, LGBQ/GNCT youth are more likely to be arrested and charged for engaging in survival crimes than straight youth and, therefore, end up in the justice system at disproportionate rates.
Evan Elkin: What are the policy implications of what you and other researchers are finding?
Dr. Irvine: Broadly, these findings reinforce our early suggestions that justice system change for LGBQ/GNCT youth requires a three-legged stool: the development of anti-discrimination policies, targeted training, and the collection of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (SOGIE) data. The more we do the work, the more we see how these three efforts reinforce one another and become a necessary foundation for all other work. Without the policy, staff don’t take training as seriously. Without data collection, staff don’t believe there are very many LGBQ/GNCT youth in their facilities. At the same time, the data provides a baseline that allows systems to start building LGBQ/GNCT youth intervention programs.
When we think of intervention programs, the justice system does not only need special support services for LGBQ/GNCT youth. Rather, we need to think about how to make all practices and programs in the system affirming of LGBQ/GNCT youth—who are mostly of color. For example, one of our most important findings is that GBQ/GNCT boys of color are at a higher risk of being criminalized for sex work than any other group in the justice system. They aren’t necessarily the largest group of youth engaged in sex work, they are simply at the highest risk of being arrested and charged for sex work. This finding illustrates that programs for youth engaged in sex work—programs that have long served “girls”—need to think more broadly about gender and gender expression to serve those at highest risk of justice involvement.
Evan Elkin: You’ve been out speaking about this data…how is the research received by juvenile justice stakeholders and policy makers?
Dr. Irvine: At this point, we have tremendous support from the field. Our work has been building since 2008. In the beginning, there were only a few system stakeholders who were thinking about the overrepresentation of LGBQ/GNCT youth.
Running a parallel track, the release of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards in 2009 and the publication of the Department of Justice PREA rule in 2012 supported broader work about LGBQ/GNCT youth across the justice system. Through listening sessions tied to the PREA Task Force and public drafts of the standards, the field began learning about how LGBQ/GNCT prisoners are at risk of sexual abuse while in custody. Once those standards were published and became the basis for training probation departments across the country, we found that the field of probation became aware and concerned about the overrepresentation of LGBQ/GNCT youth on a giant scale.
Our research, then, has improved the information available about LGBQ/GNCT youth in the justice system and directly improved practices across the country.
Evan Elkin: How could the increasing climate of intolerance affect the efforts of reform-minded policy makers dealing with overrepresentation and collateral impact on LGBQ/GNCT youth?
Dr. Irvine: There is no doubt that closeted bigots have become emboldened to share their beliefs publicly under the Trump administration. At the same time, I am a believer in the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice—as Dr. Martin Luther King described. I have friends who are military sociologists who have worked for twenty years to get the armed services to internalize the belief that LGBQ/GNCT soldiers strengthen the defense of this country. And they have succeeded. While Trump tries to reverse history, you can see how many leaders of the military are fighting for the rights of transgender soldiers however they can.
In the same way, we have been fighting to improve outcomes for LGBQ/GNCT youth in the justice system. We made long strides under PREA—which was a bipartisan bill signed by George W. Bush—and the Obama administration. There are blue and red counties across the country that understand the pernicious trends of racial and ethnic disparities and the overrepresentation of LGBQ/GNCT youth and who want to improve their systems. I don’t think the beliefs of the fringe right will take our work off track. There will be bumps in the road. For example, I know that hundreds of regulations protecting LGBQ/GNCT communities are being erased from federal agencies. I also have faith that we will continue to make progress across the aisle at the local level.
 Click here for an infographic on LGBQ/GNCT girls in California.
 Click here for an article on meeting the intersectional behavioral health needs of LGBQ/GNCT girls of color in the justice system.
 Click here for an article about this pathway into the justice system for LGBQ/GNCT youth.
 Click here for more information about the ongoing work of the PREA Resource Center, which is housed at Impact Justice.