The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 1, 2015

LGBTQ youth locked in a cycle between the justice system and the streets

October 1, 2015

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Even if you’ve been arrested many times, one instance can stand out. Such is the case of a young transgender woman who recounted the traumatic experience of being detained in a male cell after an arrest for a prostitution-related charge. A male officer began to  strip search her in front of the other detainees, and when she requested a female officer to conduct the search, she was met with a string of homophobic and transphobic expletives.

Unfortunately, this young woman’s experience is far from uncommon. Earlier this week, we released a new report on LGBTQ youth engaged in survival sex in New York City that highlights their interactions with the criminal justice and child welfare systems. From the close to 300 young people we interviewed, one message was clear: they were locked in a cycle between the criminal justice system and the streets.

Youth reported regular contact with the justice system

The contact they experienced included:

  • Run-ins with police. Over two-thirds reported having run-ins with law enforcement, including being stopped, questioned, and frisked by police. Of these youth, almost 20 percent reported having weekly police contact.
  • Arrests for misdemeanors. Over 70 percent were arrested at least once, mainly for quality-of-life crimes, such as loitering or subway fare evasion. Only 9 percent were arrested for prostitution-related crimes.
  • Property seizures. Youth reported having their property seized by police, such as cell phones and clothing. Fifteen percent of youth had condoms seized (though these interviews occurred before the NYPD instituted a  no-condoms-as-evidence policy).

Youth felt targeted based on appearance

Respondents felt as though police targeted them because of their race, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity and presentation. Many recalled traumatic incidents with police that included harassment and discriminatory remarks that were homophobic or tied to their transgender identity. As one 20-year-old transgender woman shared:

Interviewee: Like they [the police] will harass me, they really will harass me especially like the other night, last week, Friday I had a fishnet dress on with some boy shorts and no bra on, just some pasties, and they were really harassing me.
Interviewer: What are some of other things that they’ll say to you?
Interviewee: The first one, he was real nice but his partner, he was all like, “what is this world coming to? If that was my son I would have beaten him up and I would beat the feminine out of him.” They were really harsh.

Though most described their experiences with law enforcement as negative, there were a few bright spots

Some youth described incidents of violence and abuse at the hands of law enforcement, including police who propositioned them for sexual favors in return for their release. Others had more positive experiences.

For example, one respondent reported receiving money and food from a police officer, while another recounted an officer arresting but subsequently releasing him due to how young he was. A few youth also reported more positive interactions with law enforcement once off the streets and in the precinct, or in front of a judge in court.

However, while 18 percent of youth described their interactions with police as occasionally positive, the majority of youth (63 percent) described their interactions as occasionally negative.

How do we lessen the justice system’s impact on these youth?

Many of the youth caught up in this cycle were committing quality-of-life crimes because they were homeless and couldn’t meet their basic needs. These are the same reasons they turned to survival sex. However, arrests and detainment left them with little choice but to continue committing misdemeanors and quality-of-life crimes for survival due to a large number of collateral consequences, such as their inability to pay fines and the negative effect such arrests have on their ability to attend school and find employment.

This research suggests several ways the justice system, particularly police departments, could change the way they respond to and work with LGBTQ youth engaged in survival sex. A good first step would be ensuring that New York’s Safe Harbor laws, which prevent the arrest of juveniles engaged in trading sex, are fully implemented. New York City’s Safe Harbor Plan's package of services, outreach, and arrest alternatives for youth also need to be fully funded

The justice system should also create safe, respectful, and affirming policies, practices, and spaces for those who enter the system. Staff should be trained in practices that foster respect for LGBTQ youth, and jail or residential facilities should be safe and free of anti-LGBTQ harassment and violence.

When we asked this 18-year-old man for his thoughts on how to improve the justice system, his request was simple:

Listen, use your ears, that is it. They don’t know what anyone goes through . . . at all. And a lot of the youth have trust issues. You just have to listen; they have trust issues. You come from a broken home . . . and what I want is somebody to hear me out.

The bottom line is that until these youth can meet their basic needs, their dependence on survival sex will continue, and they’ll continue committing the quality-of-life crimes that keep them tied to the justice system. Until then, we must do what we can to lessen the harmful impacts of a system that, in its current state, creates more vulnerability in the lives of these youth.

Photo by Will Anderson

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