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Racism, anti-gay and HIV discrimination heighten risk for arrest and incarceration

Discrimination can occur at all stages of criminal justice involvement, from differential enforcement and/or threats of violence by police officers to court proceedings and sentencings.

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Racial discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, and HIV-status discrimination are all associated with risk for criminal justice involvement.

This is according to new research done by Morgan Philbin, PhD, at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and colleagues, and which appears in the journal Stigma and Health.

As it is, there’s recognition that Black men are imprisoned at nearly seven times the rate of White men; sexual minority young adults are nearly three times more likely to report being criminally sanctioned compared to their heterosexual peers; and the rate of HIV among prisoners is multiple times higher than the general population. Discrimination can occur at all stages of criminal justice involvement, from differential enforcement and/or threats of violence by police officers to court proceedings and sentencings.

The researcher, therefore, wanted to look at why Black young men who have sex with men (YMSM) are disproportionately subject to high rates of arrest and incarceration. For this, 465 Black YMSM at risk for HIV in North Carolina were tapped. Participants completed four online surveys over the course of one year to assess the three predictors at baseline and criminal justice involvement at 3, 6, and 12-month follow-up (the study excluded men with criminal justice involvement at baseline). The researchers assessed discrimination through survey questions asking whether participants were, for example, treated with hostility/coldness by strangers, rejected by a potential sexual/romantic partner, denied a place to live, denied a job, and physically assaulted due to their race, sexual orientation; they also explored how individuals living with HIV were treated within their community.

The research found that perceived racism was the strongest predictor of subsequent criminal justice involvement (29% increased odds) followed by perceptions of sexual orientation discrimination (12% increased odds) and HIV discrimination (6% increased odds).

“Discrimination, in this instance related to race, sexual identity and HIV, is an important driver of health and life opportunities because it directly influences physical and mental health outcomes and can constrain access to education, jobs, and housing,” says Philbin. “Perceived discrimination – especially the experience of racism – placed the men in this study at an increased risk for arrest and incarceration.”

For the researchers, to better understand the lived realities of people burdened with overlapping forms of discrimination, “we must account for the compounding nature of these intersecting axes of social inequality,” says Philbin. “We find that experiences of racism and discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status combine to raise these young men’s risk for criminal justice involvement.”

Additional authors include Timothy W. Menza, Oregon Health Authority, Portland; Sara H. Legrand, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina; and Kathryn E. Muessig and Lisa Hightow-Weidman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill.


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