Since 2005, NCLR has partnered with Legal Services for Children and the National Juvenile Defender Center on the Equity Project, a multi-year initiative to ensure that LGBTQ youth in the juvenile delinquency court system are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness. The Equity Project examines issues that affect LGBTQ youth throughout the delinquency court process—from arrest through post-disposition—identifying obstacles to fair treatment and developing recommendations to prevent discrimination.
Until very recently, information about the numbers of LGBT youth in justice systems nationwide was not available, partly because LGBT youth are socialized to hide their identities for their safety. However, LGBT youth are disproportionately represented among youth who are at risk for juvenile justice contact. According to a 2009 survey of over 2,100 youth held in detention facilities across the country, as much as 12% of these youth are LGBT.
Once LGBT youth enter the juvenile justice system, a number of systemic failures converge to deprive them of their rights to due process and nondiscriminatory treatment. Rooted in a deep lack of understanding of – and sometimes bias against – LGBT youth, these failures affect LGBT youth at every stage of a delinquency of status offense case.
Juvenile justice professionals desperately need more information, training, and resources to ensure that LGBT youth are treated fairly. LGBT young people have the same constitutional rights as other youth in the justice system, including: effective assistance of counsel, protection from harassment and harm, individualized disposition plans, and fair and respectful treatment.
The juvenile justice system is at a crossroads. After more than 20 years of increasingly punitive responses to youthful offending, reform efforts are underway in many jurisdictions to develop more fair and effective juvenile courts. Notably absent from these efforts, however, has been a focus on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) court-involved youth. The lack of professional guidance for juvenile justice professionals working with these youth is cause for concern.
Hidden Injustice represents the first effort to examine the experiences of LGBT youth in juvenile courts across the country. This 178-page report is based on information collected from 414 surveys and 65 interviews of juvenile justice professionals, including judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation officers, detention staff, and other juvenile justice advocates; focus groups and interviews of 55 youth with relevant firsthand experience; and an extensive review of relevant social science and legal research findings.
To help ensure the rights of LGBT youth and meet their rehabilitative needs, the report contains extensive recommendations directed towards judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation officers, detention facility administrators, policy makers, and advocates. In addition, the report makes eleven core recommendations to enhance the overall capacity of the system to work effectively with LGBT youth, including that:
- All agencies and offices involved in the juvenile justice system develop, adopt, and enforce policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination and mistreatment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.
- All juvenile justice professionals must treat—and ensure others treat—all LGBT youth with fairness, dignity, and respect, including prohibiting any attempts to ridicule or change a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
- All juvenile justice professionals must receive training and resources regarding the societal, familial, and developmental challenges confronting LGBT youth and the relevance of these issues to court proceedings.
In Defense of LGBT Youth: Strategies to Help Juvenile Defenders Zealously Advocate for their LGBT Clients
This short article provides information for juvenile defenders that will assist them in defending LGBT youth. In Defense of LGBT Youth expands upon recommendations and strategies from the Equity Project’s publication Hidden Injustice: LGBT Youth in Juvenile Courts. A similar version of this article appears in the UC Davis Journal of Juvenile Law & Policy 401 (2011).
LGBT Youth in Juvenile Court: Practice Tips for Juvenile Defenders
The Equity Project is excited to announce the release of LGBT Youth in Juvenile Court: Practice Tips for Juvenile Defenders, a short, convenient, and easy-to-use tool that contains practical tips for juvenile defenders to assist them in their representation of their LGBT clients. Practice Tips for Juvenile Defenders is a companion piece to the Equity Project’s 2009 publication, Hidden Injustice. The Equity Project is a collaboration of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Legal Services for Children, and the National Juvenile Defender Center.