Why more data is needed when reporting on Latinos in the criminal justice system

A jail cell is seen in 2010 at the federal penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. (CNS photo/Jenevieve Robbins, Texas Dept of Criminal Justice handout via Reuters) 

While Latinos make up just 18 percent of the U.S. population, we make up 33 percent of the prison population. Latino men born in 2001 have a 1-in-6 chance of ending up in prison, compared to a 1-in-17 chance for non-Latino white men. Latinas have a 2.2 percent chance of doing the same, while a white woman’s chance is only 0.9 percent. Why are so many Latinos of various backgrounds affected by law enforcement?

There are over 12 million admissions to jails across the country every year. A sizable portion of that number are repeat offenders, who may go through a jail’s revolving door five or six times in a single year. For minor offenses, people can usually post bail and go home. But scores of Latinos, whose median household income is the second-lowest among the four major racial groups, cannot afford bail, and they sit in jail, awaiting trial, often for months. In the meantime, they lose jobs, get behind on rent, sometimes forfeit custody of their children and even jeopardize their immigration status.

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Megan Stevenson, an economist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, studied how bail fees affect Philadelphia residents. She concluded that “those who can’t afford bail are 13 percent more likely to be convicted and will receive incarceration sentences that are on average five months longer.”

Scores of Latinos, whose median household income is the second-lowest among the four major racial groups, cannot afford bail, and they sit in jail, awaiting trial, often for months.

Beyond the financial burden of bail, sitting in jail also worsens the odds at trial time. “We’ve already known that people that are detained are more likely to be found guilty, and are more likely to have unfavorable case outcomes,” Ms. Stevenson told me.

For Latinos who are not citizens, the story gets more complicated thanks to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which increasingly uses local jails to hold undocumented immigrants while it prepares to deport them. Today, jails are filling up with South and Central Americans by the truckloads. Since 2016, ICE has set a goalto detain on average 40,000 people daily. Most of them are Latinos, and most will not have legal recourse as their deportation nears.

As a reporter on the criminal justice beat, I often found myself torn because of the incomplete reporting on Latinos in the system. For one thing, the data available is not detailed enough for any meaningful analysis of how country of origin, citizenship status and geographic location within the United States affect criminality, sentencing and recidivism.

The machismo that defines much of Latino culture plays a role in two ills that plague many immigrant communities: domestic abuse and sexual abuse.

There are also no significant sociological studies on how certain cultural norms prevent or contribute to Latinos’ ending up in the criminal justice system. For example, the Latino extended family exerts tremendous pressure on young people to stay in school and follow a traditional path to steady employment. Family pressure is often a force for good in keeping juvenile offenses low. On the other hand, the machismo that defines much of Latino culture plays a role in two ills that plague many immigrant communities: domestic abuse and sexual abuse.

Understanding such dueling phenomena in our cultures makes reporting on Latinos a moral and intellectual challenge. The more I tried to learn, the more complicated telling a full story became. One way to address this chasm is for more Latinos to run the studies, collect the data and conduct interviews—especially in Spanish when appropriate, as so much is lost in translation. I also think the traditional self-reporting methodologies do not work as well because Latinos are socialized to be hypersensitive to what others think and go to great lengths to maintain the image of propriety—even to the extent of harming ourselves.

After almost two decades as a journalist, I still often struggle when I cover Latinos. My journalistic commitment to the facts has to be balanced with fuller depictions of many cultures that are constantly changing but are poorly documented by traditional methods.

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