Justice System Disproportionately Harms LGBT People of Color

A new report authored by the Movement Advancement Project — entitled “Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People of Color” — lays out in stark detail the multi-layered ways in which the justice system discriminates against LGBT people of color.

Based on data from instruments like the National Census, the report states that two out of every three adults in U.S. prisons are people of color.

Black Americans make up the highest proportion at 37 percent, while Latinx Americans make up 22 percent of the population. Around nine percent are represented by other racial minorities.

These are staggering numbers compared to the white population – just 32 percent.

When we examine LGBT representation in prisons, the numbers continue to be shocking.

The report finds that nearly eight percent of the adult prison population identifies as LGBT — and that figure is likely higher given a common tendency to refrain from disclosing identity. To put that in perspective, Gallup figures put the number of people self-identifying as LGBT in the general population at just 3.8 percent.

The same overrepresentation emerges within the juvenile population. The report finds that one out of every five juveniles in the justice system identifies as LGBT or gender non-conforming. Furthermore, a staggering 85 percent of those are people of color.

But what are the causes of this overrepresentation?

The report identifies some of the key aspects as follows:

MAP report

The systemic challenges faced by people of color — such as racial profiling, police discrimination, incarceration for relatively minor infractions, the war on drugs and more — compound the risk factors that people who identify as LGBT already face, like homelessness and unemployment.

An additional pressure that impacts the community is sex work.

Due to higher than average school drop out rates — a double pressure for people of color — and other factors, when compared to the general population, a sizable proportion of LGBTQ people have been part of the sex worker community at some point in their lives.

Sometimes zealous criminalization of sex work means that LGBTQ people can be funneled into the system for morality offenses that are antiquated and, campaigners emphasize, deeply ineffective in solving the problems that have led many to sex work in the first place.

Other factors, like the criminalization of HIV status that still occurs in some states, also impact both racial minorities and LGBTQ people disproportionately. For instance, individuals can become ensnared in the justice system for having sex while HIV positive, even if their partner was aware of their status.

Lydia X. Z. Brown, 2016 Holley Law Fellow at the National LGBTQ Task Force, provides one example of the multiple pressures faced by LGBTQ people of color:

Yet queer and transgender people of color face risk of profiling, arrest, and police violence even – or perhaps especially – when victimized by crime. Just ask Ky Peterson, a Black transgender man who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for killing his rapist in self-defense; or Robert Suttle, a Black gay man living with HIV who served prison time, lost his job, and is required to register as a sex offender for the next eight years for the crime of having a vindictive ex-partner who took advantage of HIV criminalization statutes to have him prosecuted for consensual sex.

In many cases, the inroads to prison begin early on in life.

The report finds that black students are around three times more likely to be suspended from school than their white peers. According to GLSEN data, LGBTQ kids are far more likely to drop out of school compared to the rest of the population, and contributing factors include the discrimination they face in the school environment, a lack of support or problems at home.

These childhood experiences then set up a chain of events that, at nearly every juncture, adds yet more discriminatory pressure for LGBTQ people of color. For example, they are far more likely to be stopped and searched. And if police look long and hard enough, they are likely to find at least some small infraction to penalize, like marijuana possession.

Another factor identified above is the symbiotic relationship between police forces and the immigration system. Police can pursue undocumented people, creating a system that is by its nature hostile to anyone who doesn’t profile as American. In this case, that tends to mean anyone who is non-white.

Once the cycle of incarceration has begun, it is often very hard to break. The very things that led LGBTQ people of color to be imprisoned do not go away once they leave — and often become worse.

With a criminal record, they will now find it difficult to get a job or secure a home. All the while they continue to face racial profiling, and the risks of sexual and physical assault, which are compounded if they are made homeless. The likelihood of drug use and mental instability all rise too, further increasing the likelihood of running into problems with the law.

So how can we break this cycle?

Some of the action points identified in this report include but are not limited to:

  • eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing
  • discontinuing the practice of routine detention for people facing immigrant proceedings
  • implementing community based rehabilitation rather than detention for juvenile offenders
  • ending the criminalization of HIV status
  • ending the criminalization of sex work
  • creating LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws at the federal and state level
  • education programs for police
  • trust and outreach training to bring local communities and the police force together
  • even more targeted data gathering to pinpoint where intervention can be best applied

The Obama administration took a bold step toward addressing some of the underlying problems in the justice system this past week by announcing a reduction in the federal justice system’s use of private prisons –something that advocates believe will benefit the entire prison population.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

33 comments

Jerome S
Jerome S9 months ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S9 months ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven9 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven9 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Diana J.
Diana J2 years ago

Thanks for this information. Thank you so much.

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Wendi M.
Wendi M2 years ago

TYFS

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Joan E.
Joan E2 years ago

If kids are rejected because they are gay, sometimes prostitution is how they survive, so that puts them into the criminal system, not by choice, but by lack of other choices.

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Sue H.
Sue H2 years ago

The "justice" system would work much better if money was removed.

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Danuta Watola
Danuta W2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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