Last month, a national Safety and Justice Challenge report commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation highlighted the overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people in the criminal justice system.
The report found that LGBTQ+ people are three times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population and more than twice as likely to be arrested as heterosexuals. Rates are even higher among LGBTQ+ people of color, and results may be worse the younger you are.
The report was authored by Jane Hereth, assistant professor of social work at UW-Milwaukee. She says the goal of compiling this data was to highlight existing research in this area and share it with others trying to address this issue. Hereth explains that this report was part of a larger movement to devote more understanding and attention to the historically underresearched LGBTQ+ community.
The report presents statistics on how LGBTQ+ people enter the criminal justice system and their experiences once they are in the prison system.
“Some of the other statistics included in this report relate to people’s experiences after arrest or incarceration, which includes disproportionately high rates of victimization, including by prison staff and guards,” Hereth says. “Lack of access to medical care, particularly transgender affirming medical care, lack of access to HIV medications and disproportionate rates of solitary confinement.
Prison abolitionist organization LGBTQ+ Black and Pink has conducted one of the largest surveys of incarcerated LGBTQ+ people according to Hereth. She explains that they discovered that many of those incarcerated were forcibly placed in solitary confinement, but some had asked to be there for their personal safety. Hereth says these high rates are due to particular policies created by various institutions rather than LGBTQ+ people.
“But often it is not policies or even individual decisions that are made in consultation with incarcerated people. And so it’s very important, when we think about policy changes, that we think about how to include the voices of the people most affected by this issue, by the people who are currently incarcerated and who feels safe, and what looks like what they want and need,” says Hereth.
The report highlights not only the experiences of those incarcerated, but also the journeys that explain how they got there. Hereth says that through life experiences and patterns of oppression within the community, the LGBTQ+ population is more vulnerable to engaging in criminalized forms of survival.
“We know that LGBTQ+ people experience higher rates of many different forms of violence and victimization, including child abuse, intimate partner violence, and just one kind of bias-related violence, street or bullying. other forms of violence targeted because of gender identity or sexual orientation,” says Hereth. “And often people are criminalized to defend themselves against these forms of victimization.
Hereth says research shows that once these people enter the criminal justice system, it’s harder to get out. She cites the school-to-prison pipeline as one of the pathways to community incarceration. For example, the school’s zero-tolerance policies for breaking rules, having police officers stationed inside schools, openly punishing fights between students, and even school district decisions to subcontracting discipline to the police all contribute to these high rates.
“There’s another pathway that I also wanted to highlight, and I think it’s a very important pathway, but it has to do with how LGBTQ+ identities are constructed as deviant or criminal. Historically, we can tie to legislation and laws that punished people for wearing clothes with quote-unquote gender laws that criminalize same-sex relationships,” Hereth explains.
Hereth says the association between crime and LGBTQ+ identities plays out significantly in LGBTQ+ incarceration and housing legislation. Addressing these larger issues that affect people with LGBTQ+ identities is one step towards reducing these rates.
“It’s important that those most directly affected by this issue are centered in our research, organizing, and advocacy efforts,” notes Hereth. “So I hope this report will draw more attention to this issue and ensure that we reflect on the specific needs, experiences and journeys as they impact LGBTQ+ people as part of this broader work.”
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