Report: US criminal justice system unfair, unjust for Hispanics

10/14/04

WASHINGTON, D.C. Hispanics are overrepresented in the nation's criminal justice system, with Hispanic defendants imprisoned three times as often and detained before trial for first-time offenses almost twice as often as whites, despite being the least likely of all ethnic groups to have a criminal history, a report released today has found.

Commissioned by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights organization, the report "Lost Opportunities: The Reality of Latinos in the U.S. Criminal Justice System" also found that Hispanics represented 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2000, but accounted for 31 percent of those incarcerated in the federal criminal justice system. Hispanics have one chance in six of being confined in prison during their lifetimes, the authors found.

"It is apparent that the criminal justice system in this country is neither fair nor just for Hispanics," said Janet Murguia, NCLR's executive director and chief operating officer. "Recent polls show that Latinos care very much about protecting public safety and fighting crime, but they recognize that being tough on crime is not always the same as being smart on crime. Our community is losing a whole generation of people, and that is a national tragedy. What we need is a system that does a better job of protecting public safety without destroying lives and wasting resources. Crime and justice issues are the new civil rights issues of the 21st century."

"Lost Opportunities," co-authored by NCLR, the Center for Youth Policy Research (CYPR), and Michigan State University's Office of University Outreach & Engagement, is the first comprehensive examination of Hispanics in every facet of the criminal justice system from arrest to sentencing, including juvenile justice. The analysis is based on data from government sources, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Lost Opportunities" offers policy recommendations including community-based strategies for alternatives to incarceration for addressing criminal justice issues that affect Latinos and which provide models for states to replicate.

"This study conclusively documents the criminal justice system's discriminatory practices against the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority population," said Nancy Walker, president and senior research fellow of CYPR and MSU adjunct professor, and an author of the report. "This indictment of the system comes from the government's own statistics. Our nation cannot afford to ignore the compelling case that these numbers make for reforming our system. It would be costly, both in human and monetary terms, for us to proceed with today's norm."

In "Lost Opportunities," the authors found that the inequities that Hispanics experience in the criminal justice system stem from a variety of factors:

  • policy initiatives, such as "mandatory minimum" sentencing, the "war on drugs," and the "war on crime," that have caused incarceration rates for low-level drug offenses and immigration violations to skyrocket;
  • systemic discriminatory practices in law enforcement and court proceedings such as over-criminalizing certain behaviors and employing personnel who are, often, neither bilingual nor culturally competent that lead to higher arrest and incarceration rates for Hispanics;
  • and even damaging media portrayals that create negative public perceptions and prejudices of Hispanics in general.

Other key findings about the disparate treatment that Hispanics receive include:

  • Hispanics experience discrimination during arrest, prosecution and sentencing, and are more likely to be incarcerated than whites charged with the same offenses. Problems at the arrest stage include racial profiling and targeting poorer, "high crime" neighborhoods, which impacts people of color. Hispanics are disproportionately represented by publicly appointed legal counsel, who are overworked and underpaid. Of those defendants found guilty in large state courts from 1994 to 1998, 71 percent represented by public counsel were sentenced to incarceration, as compared to 54 percent of defendants with private attorneys. "Mandatory minimums" result in sentences that are too harsh for some low-level offenders, and too often courts do not make documents available in Spanish or provide translators when needed.
  • Hispanics are disproportionately charged with nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. Although federal health statistics show that per capita drug use rates between whites and minorities are remarkably similar, Hispanics were arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2001 at a rate nearly three times their proportion in the general population, and they accounted for nearly half (43 percent) of the individuals convicted of drug offenses in 2000. As incarceration for drug offenses grew from 16 percent in 1970 to 55 percent in 2002 so did the Hispanic prison population.
  • Latinos constitute the vast majority of those arrested for immigration violations. Arrests for immigration offenses increased 610 percent over 10 years from 1,728 in 1990 to 12,266 in 2000. A growing list of more than 50 crimes including offenses considered misdemeanors under state law, such as shoplifting or fighting at school can trigger deportation. Yet, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. citizens are 10 times more likely than immigrants to be incarcerated for violent offenses.
  • Community-based alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level offenders would better protect public safety, rehabilitate offenders, reduce crime, and save money. The most expensive and most common option in the criminal justice system for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders is to incarcerate them at an average annual cost of about $23,500. The alternatives to incarceration recommended in Lost Opportunities include drug court, outpatient drug treatment programs, and non-hospital residential treatment; these reduce recidivism and have annual average costs under $4,617. A Rand Corporation study found that for every dollar spent on drug and alcohol treatment, a state can save $7 in reduced crime costs.

"We called this study 'Lost Opportunities' for a reason," said J. Michael Senger, senior staff attorney of CYPR and an author of the report. "By relying too much on prison as a one-size-fits-all solution, our country has failed to separate the low-level, nonviolent offenders who can be rehabilitated from the hardened criminals who must be locked up. This is truly a lost opportunity for us all for the individuals involved to become productive citizens, for Latino communities to draw strength from all of its members, and for our nation as a whole to benefit from the talent, labor, and taxes that these people could potentially contribute."

Success stories that the authors point to as models for other states include Texas, which saved nearly $30 million in sending offenders to a state drug program rather than to jail, and California, where lawmakers are considering closing one or two women's prisons because of its success in diverting more than 12,000 individuals from prison to treatment programs. Texas drug court participants had significantly lower two-year recidivism rates for arrest and incarceration. Of all ethnic groups, though, Hispanics are the least likely to have the opportunity to participate in substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.

"We have to look at the detrimental impact our approach to criminal justice has on Latino youth. The number of young Hispanics in the justice system has increased significantly, which has frayed the social fabric of our community," said Francisco Villarruel, MSU University Outreach and Engagement fellow and professor of family and child ecology, and an author of the report. "We need more community-based programs to help put these young people on the path to college rather than to prison."

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