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Policy Brief

Incarcerated LGBTQ+ Adults and Youth

This brief examines the criminalization and over-incarceration of LGBTQ+ people in the United States, highlighting the drivers of overrepresentation and presenting recommendations for reform.

Related to: Incarceration, Gender Justice, Youth Justice, Sentencing Reform

Rear view image of young African-American woman walking at the LGBTQI pride event and waving rainbow flag

This fact sheet examines the criminalization and over-incarceration of LGBTQ+ adults and youth. The LGBTQ+ population is comprised of people with non-heterosexual identities—those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and others—and people with non-cisgender identities—those who are trans and gender non-conforming. LGBTQ+ adults are incarcerated at three times the rate of the total adult population. LGBTQ+ youth’s representation among the incarcerated population is double their share of the general population.

Approximately 124,000 adults self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual in U.S. prisons and jails, and over 6,000 adults self-identify as trans in state and federal prisons. LGBTQ+ youth’s representation among the incarcerated population—at 7,300 youth—is double their share of the general population. Women and girls drive the higher representation of LGBTQ+ people in prisons, jails, and youth facilities—as do LGBTQ+ people of color.

LGBTQ+ people experience high rates of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and violence—factors which drive their overrepresentation in the criminal legal system. In both adult and youth facilities, imprisoned LGBTQ+ people face physical, sexual, and verbal harassment and abuse, as well as a lack of gender-affirming housing, clothing, personal hygiene products, medical care, and mental health treatment. To help alleviate these harms, states and the federal government should repeal laws that criminalize LGBTQ+ people, limit the use of solitary confinement, mandate access to gender-affirming health care in correctional facilities, and invest in drug and mental health treatment and reentry programs for LGBTQ+ youth and adults.

Click here to download the report.

About the Authors

  • Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D.

    Senior Research Analyst

    Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., conducts and synthesizes research on criminal justice policies. She has written about racial disparities in the justice system, public opinion about punishment, and the scope of reform efforts. 

    Read more about Nazgol
  • Emma Stammen

    Former research fellow at The Sentencing Project

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