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  2. Juvenile Justice

Juvenile Justice

LGBTQ+ youth represent at least 13 to 15 percent of the total detained population in the juvenile justice system.1 LGBTQ+ youth of color are disproportionately overrepresented in the juvenile justice system and are more likely to experience discrimination and violence.2 Some LGBTQ+ youth become involved in the system for violating laws for reasons unrelated to their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, such as engaging in nonviolent survival acts like shoplifting and prostitution while homeless. Others may become involved through pathways that are associated with their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, such as:

  • family rejection and subsequent homelessness, either because youth run away or are forced to leave their homes
  • detention for consensual, age-appropriate, same-sex behavior3

LGBT youth have the right to the same safe conditions and protection from harassment and violence within juvenile justice facilities as their peers.4 However, policies to prevent discrimination, bias, and harassment of LGBT youth are limited, and staff are often not trained to create a safe environment for LGBT youth.5 As a result, many of these youth experience a juvenile justice system that is biased and abusive. LGBTQ+ youth in juvenile justice settings may experience high levels of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse and humiliation from peers and adults.

Rather than address these issues, staff may move LGBT youth to a more restrictive or isolated environment.6 LGBT youth may also be labeled as sex offenders despite no such history.7 It is important for juvenile justice facilities to establish and enforce policies that protect LGBT youth from harassment and discrimination and to ensure that staff are well trained in the unique experiences of LGBT youth to create safe, supportive environments for youth and appropriately address harassment and abuse.8

Policy Approaches to Protecting LGBTQ+ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) requires correctional agencies to safely screen, classify, and house individuals who are LGBTQ+ or have intersex conditions. PREA mandates the reporting of any sexual behavior among residents and prohibits any sexual behavior by adolescents in residential programs. Even touching is reportable. Facilities are also responsible for providing access to appropriately trained professionals and medically necessary treatment when an individual requests medical care.

The Juvenile Drug Court Treatment Guidelines (PDF, 60 pages) were developed by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency and a collaborative team of researchers to translate the best evidence into research-informed practice guidelines. Within this resource there are guidelines specifically targeted to help ensure LGBTQ+ youth who participate in a juvenile drug treatment court (JDTC) receive equitable care, including:9

  • Guideline 2.5: JDTCs should ensure that eligibility criteria result in equity of access for all genders; racial and ethnic groups; and youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and gender nonconforming (LGBTQI-GNC) and Two-Spirit.
  • Guideline 7.1: Court and treatment practices should facilitate equivalent outcomes (e.g., retention, duration of involvement, treatment progress, positive court outcomes) for all program participants, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Additionally, Guideline 1.4, which focuses on ensuring all team members have equal access to high-quality regular training and technical assistance, emphasizes the importance of using cultural competence when working with youth and families. The following language from this guideline details how and why focusing on LGBTQ+ youth is important and is a good example of how to frame policies related to improving the welfare of LGBTQ+ youth in all human service systems:

Juvenile justice professionals who work with LGBTQI–GNC youth will also benefit from training on concepts such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expressions, as well as Prison Rape Elimination Act standards, rules, and regulations pertaining to this population. Such training will allow those who work in the field to assess any inherent biases and enhance their knowledge of discriminatory practices or policies that can interfere with the administration of fair and beneficial treatment to LGBTQI–GNC youth. Further, this training will stress that all youth deserve to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect regardless of their gender identity or means of expression.10


getREAL (Recognize. Engage. Affirm. Love)
This initiative promotes the healthy development of all children and youth, with a focus on sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. getREAL challenges public systems working with children and youth to improve their policies and practices to support the healthy sexual and identity development of all children and youth in child welfare systems.

A Guide for Understanding, Supporting, and Affirming LGBTQI2-S Children, Youth, and Families (PDF, 8 pages)
This guide provides information for service providers, educators, allies, and community members who seek to support the health and well-being of children and youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, or two-spirit (LGBTQI2-S) and their families. This guide can support efforts to promote full and affirming inclusion of LGBTQI2-S youth and families in communities and provider settings (e.g., child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health, schools). The guide includes a section for organizations to add their endorsement electronically. Both the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) have endorsed the guide.

Improving Services for Youth Who Are LGBT in Juvenile Justice Systems (PDF, 10 pages)
This fact sheet serves as a resource to enhance the capacity of state and local administrators and practitioners to improve policies and practices that promote the safe, inclusive treatment of LGBT youth in juvenile justice systems. The document explores the experiences of youth who are LGBT generally, their entry into juvenile justice systems and their experiences in these systems, and recommendations for policy and practice. Additional resources to improve juvenile justice services are presented at the end of the document.

LGBTQ Youths in the Juvenile Justice System (PDF, 12 pages)
This resource provides information on how to facilitate equivalent outcomes for all youth who are involved in the justice system.

National Institute of Corrections
This library contains resources related to LGBTI youth, with a specific section on “gender identity issues” as they relate to juvenile justice.

Policy Review and Development Guide: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Persons in Custodial Settings (PDF, 79 pages)
This guide includes information to help adult correctional facilities and juvenile justice agencies assess, develop, and improve policies and practices for LGBT and intersex individuals in their custody.


1 Hunt and Moodie–Mills, 2012;  Majd, Marksamer & Reyes, 2009
2 Irvine & Canfield, 2019; Majd, Marksamer & Reyes, 2009
3 Majd, Marksamer & Reyes, 2009
4 Estrada & Marksamer, 2006
5 Estrada & Marksamer, 2006; National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2006
6 Estrada & Marksamer, 2006; Majd, Marksamer & Reyes, 2009; National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2006
7 Estrada & Marksamer, 2006; Majd, Marksamer & Reyes, 2009
8 Estrada & Marksamer, 2006; National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2006
9 Jarjoura et al., 2016
10 Jarjoura et al., 2016

Other Resources on this Topic


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Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

Civic Engagement Strategies for Transition Age Youth

Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).