This is a guest post from Liz Ryan, CEO of the Youth First! Initiative, a new national campaign to end the incarceration of youth in juvenile prisons and redirect resources towards effective community-based programs for youth. The Equality Federation is excited to introduce this new campaign to our members and to partner with them as part of our Lived Equality Program.

While recently on a tour at a juvenile detention facility, one of my colleagues asked the staff how they make housing decisions for transgender youth. The staff responded, "We ask youth how they identify themselves, and if they would prefer to be placed in the girls unit or in the boys unit."  My colleague remarked, “Wow, that’s progressive” and the staff said, “It’s because of PREA.”

“PREA”, the acronym for the Prison Rape Elimination Act, is designed to eliminate sexual violence in juvenile detention and correctional facilities, as well as adult jails, adult prisons and the federal Bureau of Prisons. Approved unanimously by the Congress in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice created regulations establishing standards for PREA. The standards were informed by numerous experts, such as Jody Marksamer, formerly of the National Center on Lesbian Rights, who led the effort to ensure strong protections for LGBT youth.

Implementation of the PREA standards is underway in most states. But it is early in the process and there are some governors, like Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who have publicly stated their intentions not to comply.

It may be a surprise that to date, the PREA standards are the only federal standards that have provisions for protecting LGBT youth in the justice system.  No other federal protections are in place in the juvenile justice system to require equitable, fair and non-discriminatory treatment of LGBT youth even though research shows that LGBT youth are significantly over-represented in the juvenile justice system. LGBT youth represent 5 percent to 7 percent of the nation’s overall youth population, but they compose 13 percent to 15 percent of those currently in the juvenile justice system.

New research by Dr. Angela Irvine of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, who has done extensive research on LGBT youths’ experiences in the justice system, from a sample of 1,400 girls in juvenile jurisdictions around the country shows that 40% of girls in the juvenile justice system are lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or gender-nonconforming. Additionally, LGBT youth two times as likely to be detained for status offenses such as running away or skipping school, and LGBT youth face higher risks of detention or residential placement for numerous reasons such as courts’ perceiving a lack of family support for youth. Researchers believe that these numbers are a significant undercount of LGBT youth as there is a lack of data on this population.

Six years ago my colleagues Jody Marksamer, Katayoon Majd and Carolyn Reeves first highlighted the over-representation and experiences of LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system, especially the harm that LGBT youth face from arrest through incarceration in a ground-breaking study, Hidden Injustice: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth in Juvenile Courts.

Released by the Equity Project, a collaboration of Legal Services for Children, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Juvenile Defender Center, co-author Jody Marksamer stated in an opinion piece that, “For more than 20 years, the juvenile justice system has steadily become more punitive in how it treats youth accused of delinquent offenses. In some jurisdictions, the pendulum is slowly starting to swing back, with reform efforts underway to develop more fair and effective juvenile courts. Notably absent from these efforts, however, has been a focus on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.”

The bottom line? Essentially efforts to reform juvenile justice to date have left LGBT youth out of the mix.

With a new national campaign, the Youth First! Initiative, that’s about to change.

The Youth First! Initiative will partner with the Equality Federation and its’ network to address one of the worst aspects of the juvenile justice system : youth prisons. Referred to as “training schools” in some states and many other euphemisms that one would think signify positive environments but are not, youth prisons are the signature feature of state juvenile justice systems.

According to Hidden Injustice, youth prisons are the place where LGBT youth are most vulnerable in the juvenile justice system. The report states that, "The youth and professionals interviewed for this report overwhelmingly agreed that secure facilities are particularly dangerous and hostile places for LGBT youth." In youth prisons, LGBT youths face harassment, emotional abuse, physical and sexual assault. Corrections officials place LGBT youth in isolation for long periods of time, punished for their identity or isolated for their protection. LGBT youth are often improperly classified as sex offenders and forced to undergo sex offender treatment. Hidden Injustice provides a powerful example of this: "A prosecutor argued in court that 14-year old Adam needed to be placed in a restrictive setting reserved for youth at high risk of sexual offending, merely because Adam is gay."

States spend an average of $88,000 per year to lock up a youth in a youth prison and overall, youth prisons consume the lion share of state funding for juvenile justice. These institutions aren’t safe, aren’t fair and don’t work and youth advocates contend that for the $5 billion a year that states spend to incarcerate youth could be more effectively and appropriately served in community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Across the country, directly impacted youth and their families, along with youth advocates, youth-service providers, community and grassroots groups, are joining forces with the support of the Youth First! initiative to launch state-based campaigns to close youth prisons and advance policies that dramatically decrease youth incarceration, reduce racial and ethnic disparities, and expand community alternatives. The goal is to achieve a 50% reduction in youth incarceration in about one third of the states within five years.

Through state-based, multi-strategy advocacy campaigns, Youth First! ultimately seeks to achieve a tipping point at which a new national consensus is developed against youth incarceration and in favor of investments in community programs based on principles of positive youth development.  Youth First! seeks to ensure that all youth – regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation – are provided with effective services tailored to meet their individual needs.

To support reform, Youth First! will provide technical assistance to state campaigns on policy, research, budget analysis, and advocacy strategy; connect individual campaigns to each other and national allies; provide robust communications support at the state and national level; engage directly impacted youth and their families as well as new allies and constituencies; and document lessons learned to share with the field.  Youth First! is working to achieve policy reform goals by using proven advocacy techniques, while also developing new strategies to meet the emerging challenges and opportunities in juvenile justice reform.

We look forward to discussing this new effort with the Equality Federation and its’ network at the Federation's Summer Meeting. Together, we can improve the fair treatment and lives of LGBT youth and other vulnerable youth in the juvenile justice system.

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