LGBTQ+ people in the Criminal Justice System: Reflections during Pride Month

Published: Friday, June 7th, 2024


This is a blog by our Communications and Campaigns Officer, Isabelle Gius.

 

Happy Pride Month from all of us at Why me?! June is a time of celebration and joy, but it should also be a moment to take stock of the ongoing challenges that LGBTQ+ people face both within and outside of the Criminal Justice System and to press for further changes to increase access to justice for all. 

There is a lack of comprehensive and consistent data about LGBTQ+ people who are in contact with the Criminal Justice System, but it is clear that they are disproportionately represented at all levels. LGBTQ+ women make up 22% of women in prison, for example, almost eight times more than the general UK population. And it’s likely that there are many more LGBTQ+ people in these spaces than the existing data captures who do not feel safe disclosing their identity. 

The causes of this overrepresentation are complex. The historical legacies of legal discrimination against LGBTQ+ people mean that the Criminal Justice System was not designed with their needs in mind. After all, less than 60 years ago, homosexuality was still criminalised in England and Wales. In the 1800s, male same-sex activity was punishable by the death penalty, life imprisonment or hard labour. Discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation has been prohibited since just 2003. 

Transgender people have been able to change their legal gender for 20 years; before that, being trans was classified as a mental illness. Even today, legal and medical transition remains a costly, time-consuming and bureaucratic process with hurdles that prevent many trans people from accessing the services they need. 

With this history in mind, it is not a surprise that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to find themselves in contact with police, prisons and probation services. For centuries, the justice system did not include them, indeed actively targeted them – breaking out of this trend will require more than supportive legislation. 

Present-day discrimination and marginalisation are also at play. According to Revolving Doors, a charity that works to break the cycle of crisis and crime for people who have repeat contact with the Criminal Justice System: “We know that the discrimination and marginalisation that LGBTQ+ communities continue to face are strong prerequisites to physical and mental health inequalities, homelessness, and problematic alcohol and substance use. Yet mainstream services fail to understand the profoundly unique barriers that LGBTQ+ people face and, in fact, often exacerbate these.” These health and social inequalities and unmet needs frequently drive offending behaviour. For LGBTQ+ people of colour, multiple layers of discrimination intersect and intensify each other. Transgender people in prisons are uniquely politicised and at risk. 

So where do we go from here? What would it take for the Criminal Justice System to work for LGBTQ+ people? 

Restorative Justice is one way of creating cultural and systemic change in the Criminal Justice System. Currently, rightful fear and mistrust mean that many LGBTQ+ people affected by crime are hesitant to report or seek the support they need, particularly when it comes to hate crime. 

Our project on using Restorative Justice for LGBTQ+ hate crime, which recently wrapped up with the publication of a Good Practice Guide, found that there is great potential but limited access at the moment. A face-to-face restorative meeting may not always be safe or beneficial when it comes to hate crime, but there are other options, such as using a proxy victim or a shuttle process. Restorative Justice is unique in that it has the potential to change the perspectives of people who commit hate crime and address the root causes of their behaviour, which is a frequently-voiced desire from victims – that what happened to them doesn’t happen to someone else. Restorative Justice can enable the type of transformational change that is necessary to rebuild trust, challenge discriminatory legacies and empower communities to live authentically free from fear.

 

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