Tagline: Until the Work Is Done
California’s LGBTQ Youth Deserve Justice Reform Now
September 30, 2016 at 9:46 am

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California’s broken criminal justice system is failing our youth and families, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth and youth of color. Although some reforms have been implemented over the past few decades, thousands of youth remain behind bars, not receiving the kind of support and education they need to become active members of society upon their release. Our children should be in schools not jails. Young people who face heightened risk of homelessness, family rejection, and other challenges should be nurtured and empowered not punished and abused.

In some schools something as simple as a dress code violation can send a student home and begin a cycle of troubles. As youth are suspended from school, especially poor youth, they face higher rates of drug use, street survival, and other risk factors that may result in arrest. This cycle is often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. The Movement Advancement Project has reported that LGBTQ youth comprise 20% of all incarcerated youth and 40% of incarcerated girls. Of all the LGBTQ youth who are incarcerated, 85% are youth of color.

A few years ago a transgender student, Jeweless Gutierrez, of Hercules, California faced criminal charges for defending herself from bullies at school, while the other students involved walked free. The school didn’t have clear anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, and relied heavily on local law enforcement to deal with the situation. Situations like this form the recipe for students being pushed out of school and into prisons. Thankfully, with the advocacy of area nonprofits, the charges against Gutierrez were dropped.

When it comes to the juvenile justice system, the inconsistent patchwork of laws, policies, and enforcement is mind boggling. In Santa Clara County there is a certain judge who is notorious for trying children as adults. One of those youth, Christian Haro Cotero, is spending 9-years in prison after committing a non-fatal crime at the age of 14. His many years of abuse at home and in his community was not taken into account by the courts. Between 2010 and 2014 Santa Clara County filed 35% more youth as adults Los Angeles, the largest county in the nation.

This year Equality California co-sponsored legislation, AB 1675, to  ensure that minors who participate in sex work are treated as victims of exeual exploitation instead of criminals.  Facing intimidation and extreme living situations, this vulnerable community of young people – disproportionately LGBTQ and of color – , many of whom are or were homeless, become involved in the commercial sex industry for basic survival, and are too often punished by the justice system when what they need most is support in finding a way out of their current situation. . Juveniles who have been arrested previously for engaging in survival sex are not eligible for rehabilitative programs and services, reinforcing a cycle of negative interaction with the criminal justice system at a young age.

Sadly that legislation didn’t make it through but we will continue advocating for these types of reforms and providing youth with the tools they need to advocate for change until all young people are able to have a fair chance at thriving in California. The cost of ignoring our youth is both fiscally outrageous and morally reprehensible. We can do better.

Please join us in taking the pledge to support alternatives to prisons for our youth.

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