Our Issues Must Be Part of Criminal Justice Reform
Congress is riddled with partisanship, now even more than usual, with the upcoming election and the recent vacancy on the Supreme Court. Yet in the midst of this contention, there’s an issue that is unifying the parties: the need for criminal justice reform. As Congress and our country grapple with the specifics of how best to ensure justice for all and reform the criminal justice system, we must ensure that reform efforts are inclusive of the needs of everyone trapped in this broken system, including the disproportionately high number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people interacting with police, housed within prisons and jails, and reentering communities often hostile to their identities.
People like Ashley Diamond. As a transgender woman and nonviolent offender, Ashley was unfairly housed with violent male felons in prison and even thrown in solitary confinement for “pretending to be a woman.” She was also denied hormone therapy even though she was receiving it prior to being incarcerated. As a result, her body underwent extreme changes, and she attempted suicide and castration several times. This is just one example of the issues LGBT people face in the system.
A new report released this month by the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress titled “Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People” reviews how LGBT people are targeted, mistreated, and abused in high numbers within the criminal justice system. LGBT people of color, low-income LGBT people, and transgender women in particular bear the brunt of the ways that the criminal justice system not only fails them but targets them. While the LGBT inmate population might not be as high as Orange Is the New Black suggests, it’s still roughly double the percentage of LGBT people in the general public.
The discrimination and stigma that LGBT people face in civil society, based not only on sexual orientation and gender identity but other characteristics like race and age, is a clear part of what leads LGBT people into the system and hinders their ability to leave it. LGBT students are more likely than their peers to be suspended or expelled, which pushes them into the school-to-prison pipeline and the potentially irreversible cycles of poverty and incarceration. Housing and employment discrimination can cause bouts of unemployment, lower earnings, and homelessness, particularly among LGBT people of color. Destitution can then lead LGBT people turn to illegal activity in order to survive.
On the streets, LGBT people are subjected to profiling and are disproportionately represented among people targeted by “stop and frisk” laws. This is particularly true if the person is transgender, since police often assume that transgender women, especially transgender women of color, are engaging in sex work.
Just this past fall, Meaghan Taylor, a transgender woman, was arrested after traveling to Iowa for a friend’s funeral. When Meaghan arrived at her hotel, staff, suspecting that she was a sex worker, called the police and Meaghan was arrested for failing to have a prescription for medicine that was part of her hormone treatment.
This unfair treatment continues after a person is incarcerated. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual inmates are over 10 times as likely as their heterosexual peers to be sexually assaulted by fellow inmates, and this often occurs under staff surveillance. When staff do respond, they often place LGBT people in solitary confinement, causing significant psychological trauma. Like Ashley, many transgender inmates are housed inappropriately and denied access to vital health care.
Unfortunately, the cycle does not end for LGBT people released from prison. Having a criminal record erects barriers to securing safe and stable housing and employment, making it particularly hard to escape many of the circumstances that led to interaction with the criminal justice system in the first place.
Ashley and Meaghan’s stories are just a few horrific examples of how LGBT people, particularly LGBT people of color, can be trapped in our broken criminal justice system. LGBT people face unique issues within this system, and for many, fixing those problems remains a matter of life and death. As we debate the policy changes needed to repair a broken system, LGBT people and their families cannot afford to be left behind. True reform must include everyone.
So as LGBT people and advocates, we need to speak up and ensure our voices are heard in the calls for reform, for justice, and for accountability in the criminal justice system. LGBT organizations, national and grassroots, are doing hard-hitting work to address many of the failures that result in higher rates of incarceration and interactions with law enforcement. Now is the time to come together in the work of criminal justice reform and demand better for all Americans, including LGBT people.
LAURA E. DURSO is the senior director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. NAOMI GOLDBERG is a researcher with the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBT think tank, and lives in Chicago.