Abstract: Pathways into the Criminal Legal System Among Young Transgender Women (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Pathways into the Criminal Legal System Among Young Transgender Women

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jane Hereth, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and purpose:

Feminist pathways theory frames examinations of the ways in which gendered, racialized, and classed violence and discrimination funnel cisgender women into the criminal legal system. These frameworks have not included or centered the experiences of young transgender women (YTW) despite high rates of criminal legal system involvement, especially arrest. The present study addressed this gap by examining pathways leading to arrest among transgender women.


Interviews were conducted with 21 young transgender women (YTW) who participated in Project Life Skills in Chicago. Life calendar and narrative methodologies were used to illicit pathways and other life experiences. A life timeline tool was used as a visual cue to explore pathways and put life experiences, including criminal legal system involvement, into chronological order. A first round of initial coding and mind mapping was conducted to identify themes. Mind mapping is a visual information organizational tool, and was used in this context to identify and connect themes and coding categories. A codebook was created using the interview guide and the themes identified during mind mapping. Two coders conducted a second round of focused coding and reviewed each other’s coding, discussing discrepancies and coming to consensus. Finally, analytic memos were written for each transcript capturing narrative elements of participants’ life stories, such as sequencing of events, pivotal moments, and thematic lines.


Seventeen YTW (81.0%) identified as Black/African American, one as Latina, and three as White. Five had never been arrested. Of the 16 women who had been arrested, the number of arrests ranged from one to “at least 10 times”. Women shared experiences that align with those described by feminist pathways scholars, including engaging in criminalized behaviors like theft or sex work to survive, or life histories that include trauma and violence. Yet these pathways included experiences of transphobic discrimination and bias that are distinct to YTW. YTW described the ways in which race, gender, and other identities intersect and interact, leading towards or away from arrest. Several Black YTW used the phrase “three strikes” to describe how the combination of multiple marginalized identities lead to heightened police surveillance and profiling, and greater likelihood of police contact resulting in arrest.

Conclusion and implications:

The high rate of criminal legal system involvement among young transgender women warrants more attention within research, policy, advocacy, and intervention efforts. To direct these efforts, it is necessary to understand the structural and social factors that shape YTW’s pathways into the criminal legal system. To date, feminist pathways theory has not been used to examine YTW’s pathways, but this study indicates that this framework can be extended to YTW. However, transphobic discrimination and bias are woven into the pathways. Thus, efforts to divert YTW from the criminal legal system must also address experiences of gender-based discrimination and exclusion. Additionally, these findings indicate the need for intersectional research and programmatic approaches that attend to the ways in which Black transgender women are multiply marginalized and vulnerable.