Why Criminal Justice Reform Must Include Consideration for LGBT Prisoners

Reforming a criminal justice system that currently incarcerates more people (and at a higher rate) than any other country in the world has generated more and more interest in Congress.  Earlier this year, an unusually bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate that would mark the first step on a long road to ending mass incarceration. A number of other pieces of legislation have been introduced in this Congress that would do wonders to an ailing criminal justice system if they were passed, and more are sure to follow.  The time for rethinking who is locked up, why, and for how long, is apparently now, and not just for Congress.  Many states have begun re-examining their sentencing laws, and some are starting to slowly reduce their gargantuan prison populations.  However, lost in all of this progress are the unique struggles that the LGBT community faces in the criminal justice system.

The problems that LGBT individuals face in the US criminal justice system begin in the juvenile system.  Approximately 5-7% of the US juvenile population (those under 18) is estimated to be LGBT, but 20% of incarcerated juveniles identify as LGBT.  An astounding 40% of juvenile girls in the criminal justice system identify as LGBT.  The sheer numbers alone should raise some serious concerns.  The experiences of LGBT youth are likely to persist in the adult system if current rates and practices continue.  And just what are these experiences?

First, it should be noted that while the highest percentage of incarcerated LGBT individuals is at the juvenile level, there are many in the adult criminal justice system level that suffer as well.  People struggling with gender identity issues are rarely accommodated, and frequently discriminated against by police and prison officials.  Second, while the unusually high number of LGBT juveniles incarcerated should be explored, so should the suffering that they experience.  The problems that LGBT adults face in the criminal justice system are mirrored in the juvenile system.

LGBT prisoners are often subjected to discrimination, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. Some of this is a direct result of actions taken by correctional officers or police, while some of it is a result of neglect.  Transgender prisoners, particularly juveniles, are especially at risk because there are few facilities equipped to properly classify them in the existing prison system. 

In addition to a plethora of abuses, both direct and indirect, the high number of LGBT youth in prison is a problem that has not been addressed by lawmakers eager to reduce mass incarceration.  Why are so many LGBT youth a part of the criminal justice system?  Rejection by families, peers, and their communities is one of the main answers.  LGBT youth also become homeless at a higher rate that heterosexual youth for these reasons; which also contributes to the disproportionate rate of confinement.

Many of these issues can be ameliorated by changing the way that individuals who identify as LGBT are treated by law enforcement and corrections officers.  Police and correctional staff should be required –indeed, expected- to not discriminate on the basis of their orientation.  This includes acknowledging the identities of transgender and intersex people, and implementing basic surveys about gender to better identify the best placements for inmates.  Implementing polices that reflect SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression) are key. Detailed recommendations for policies on LGBT youth in the criminal justice system are available from the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

At the very least, basic standards for LGBT prisoners should be enacted that ensure their equal treatment under the law.  Many of these can come at the state and local level, but it they are needed at the federal level as well.  Furthermore, if the federal government were seen to embrace the needs of LGBT individuals in the criminal justice system, it could provide a guide for changes at the state level.  The federal government could also incentivize states to reform their treatment of LGBT individuals through grants for training and educating personnel.

Given all of this, how should the Christian community respond?

The issue of homosexuality is one that most churches and many Christians have been wrestling with in recent years.  Should Christians who reject homosexuality as an acceptable practice then reject the problems that the LGBT community faces in the criminal justice system? Christians are called to love, to speak for those who have no voice, and to stand on the side of the oppressed.  Even if some Christians have beliefs that differ strongly from the LGBT community, they can still support their pursuit of merciful treatment in the criminal justice system (not to mention the treatment they receive after leaving the system).  While this might seem counterintuitive, it is actually an opportunity for Christians to work together on one of the most divisive issues in this country today.

Christians who support marriage equality should be shocked by the treatment that LGBT people face in the criminal justice system.  The fact that 20% of incarcerated youth are LGBT should inspire them to action, be that advocacy, direct service, or both.  Christians who do not support same-sex marriage should also be concerned with the problems that LGBT people, particularly juveniles, face in the criminal justice system today.  This is an issue that Christians with opposing viewpoints can, and should, come together on.  

-Joshua Russell is a graduate of Furman University and lives in Washington, DC.