Locked-Up Latinos Get Counted Out

Latino youth are vastly undercounted in almost every state criminal justice system because of inadequate data collection and an absence of bilingual services, a new study charges.

“They’re buried so deep in the system, we don’t know where they’re at or what their true numbers are,” study co-author Francisco Villaurrel said at a recent news conference to unveil the report.

“Donde Esta la Justicia? A Call to Action on Behalf of Latino and Latina Youth in the U.S. Justice System,” documents what it called “the overrepresentation and disparate treatment of youth of color in the American criminal justice system.” It says undercounts mask Latino arrest rates in 46 of the 50 states where it is known that Latinos are incarcerated at higher rates than whites.

Villaurrel and fellow Michigan State University professor and co-author Nancy Walker were commissioned by the Building Blocks for Youth initiative of the D.C.-based Youth Law Center. Among their findings:

• Latino and Latina youth have a “cumulative disadvantage” in the justice system. In Los Angeles, for example, from 1996 to 1998, they were arrested 2.3 times more than whites, prosecuted 2.4 times more and imprisoned 7.3 times longer, even when charged with the same offenses (according to “The Color of Justice” authors/analysts Mike Males and Dan Macallair).

• States do not provide uniform definitions for the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic.” Such youth are often counted as white.

• Most state juvenile justice systems do not provide bilingual services.

• Latino youth are overrepresented in pretrial detention, adult jails and prisons.

• Anti-gang laws, carried out in ignorance of Latino social customs and language, resulted in unnecessary arrests and incarcerations.

Regarding anti-gang laws, J. Robert Flores, administrator of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, weighed in by saying (via e-mail): “It is an injustice anytime that stereotypes, cultural customs, or styles of language are used instead of facts. We are working to increase training opportunities for law enforcement in cultural and ethnic diversity in order to better protect communities across the country.”

“The staff assigned to work with Latino and Latina youth by the authorities around the country generally don’t speak the language,” noted Brent Wilkes, a spokesman for the League of United Latin American Citizens and a supporter of the study’s findings. “If they did, it could contribute significantly to lowering the disproportionate minority confinement of our kids.”

Wilkes said better data collection is needed “before we can fully address the issue.”

The study also said no “race” box appears on many state arrest and incarceration forms for “Latino” or “Hispanic,” so when given a choice of white, black or Asian, the vast majority of Latinos will check “white.”

Dirty Data

Balking at some of the study findings was Melissa Sickmund, a researcher for the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh (the research arm of the Nevada-based National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges), who has studied the report.

“Latinos are categorized as white because they look white or choose to be identified as white.” She singled out a Latina neighbor who told Sickmund recently that she “used to put ‘Hispanic’” on her census form, but “last year I put ‘white.’”

Sickmund explained, “She’s not treated like a minority group; she has no accent. Her life experience has been the same as her white neighbors. She is married to a white man and has two children. The son identifies white, the daughter Hispanic.”

Sickmund sympathized with the “frustration” of Latino activists over data collection that “is not designed for” getting an accurate count of disproportionate minority confinement (“It is three or four steps behind attaining this goal”), but pointed out the example of her neighbor as representing “the kind of ‘dirty data’ we deal with all the time.”

Police arrest reports often add to the problem, she said: “The primary job of the police is not data collection, it’s catching suspects. … They don’t make their living by reporting data information. It’s done hurriedly so they can make an arrest.”

Mai Fernandez, a study supporter who represented the Latin American Youth Center in Washington at the news conference, pointed out that meeting the needs of a growing Latino population with special police recruitment efforts can sometimes go awry.

“Ninety police officers were recruited for the D.C. police department from Puerto Rico to serve the city’s Latino population. But these police officers were American-born citizens, first of all, and secondly, they had difficulties communicating with the largely Central American communities here in the city. They should have recruited officers from D.C.’s Latino and Latina community,”
Fernandez said.

Bridging the language and cultural divide and introducing procedures to ensure consistent and reliable data are among the primary recommendations of the study. Others include:

• Eliminate racial profiling and other policies based explicitly or implicitly on racial or ethnic stereotypes.

• Reduce subjective or biased decision-making by creating objective risk-assessment procedures.

• Latino communities should form advisory groups to guide policymaking and implementation in the law enforcement and justice systems.

Contact: Nancy Walker at (517) 353-6617 or


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