Rights for Incarcerated Youth: Juvenile Justice Project Tackles Harassment and Discrimination

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All young people deserve to live free from intimidation, harassment and abuse, especially from the people who are supposed to be guarding their welfare. But for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth who are con?ned in New York detention centers, this basic human right is too often compromised. The New York Juvenile Justice Coalition, which the CA’s Juvenile Justice Project coordinates, is the only juvenile justice coalition in the country striving to ensure the safety of LGBT youth involved in the court system.

Many LGBT youth are homeless, having been rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation. On the street, they are vulnerable to physical violence, drug addiction and forced prostitution. After they are arrested, their situation is often even bleaker: in jail, LGBT young people regularly face verbal and physical harassment—not only from their peers, but from facility staff as well.

And there’s usually little they can do about it. The Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which manages New York’s juvenile detention centers, does not recognize sexual orientation or gender identity in its anti-discrimination policy, so there is no official avenue for young people to get help or to escape an abusive, potentially violent situation. Even sympathetic staff members can’t always provide proper care, because they haven’t received sufficient training.

In addition, LGBT youth are often placed in more restrictive settings, either in an effort to protect them from abuse or based on the incorrect assumption that they are more likely than a heterosexual youth to “act out” sexually. This practice means that as a matter of policy, LGBT youth are being treated more harshly within the system simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The Juvenile Justice Coalition is working to educate the public about these issues and to change policy. Many people are not even aware that these problems exist, so the Coalition is collaborating with a ?lmmaker who is making a short documentary about LGBT youth in jail. To be completed in the fall, the ? lm should be a powerful advocacy tool, allowing viewers to hear LGBT youth speak in their own words about the discrimination they’ve faced.

In the spring, the Juvenile Justice Coalition’s LGBT working group held a training on LGBT issues for all Coalition members, an important step in our advocacy work, ensuring that Coalition members understand the basic issues at hand. In addition, the working group organized a special training last fall to help defense attorneys better represent the needs of LGBT clients in Family Court.

Members of the LGBT working group are also collaborating with the Family Court Advisory Council to design a system-wide training on LGBT issues for everyone who is involved in the juvenile justice system in New York City. This day-long training will raise awareness of the issues facing LGBT youth and help create a safe environment for youth in juvenile justice settings. In addition, training leaders will distribute a curriculum that attendees can use to teach their staff about these issues.

The Coalition has developed a positive relationship with the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), which runs New York City’s youth detention centers. Recognizing the severity of this problem, the Department has voluntarily drafted an anti-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, members of the Juvenile Justice Coalition have been conducting regular trainings at DJJ about these issues.

The Correctional Association applauds the initiative with which DJJ is addressing the needs and rights of LGBT youth—not only because it is the right thing to do, but because its policy will serve as a model for other agencies.

In the next year, the Juvenile Justice Coalition will press OCFS to adopt a policy similar to DJJ’s. The Coalition will still advocate for the Safe, Fair and Equal Treatment for Youth (SAFETY) Act (A.6502), which will ban all forms of discrimination in state juvenile justice facilities and require OCFS to provide staff training to address homophobia and to protect the rights of LGBT youth con?ned in its facilities. Between these two approaches, we expect that OCFS will eventually take a stand against all types of discrimination and give its staff the tools they need to promote a safe environment for all youth.