June 15, 2002

Latino and Latina youth receive disparate and more punitive treatment than their White peers charged with the same offenses, according to a new report commissioned by the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative. Available data actually under-count disparities because most states and the federal government fail to identify Latino youth in data collection, usually counting them as White.

Latino youth are more likely to be incarcerated than White youth charged with the same offenses. For youth charged with drug offenses, the incarceration rate for Latino youth was 13 times the rate for White youth. Latino youth charged with violent offenses were five times as likely to be incarcerated as White youth similarly charged. According to Human Rights Watch research, Latino youth are incarcerated at higher rates than Whites in 46 of the 50 states.

The report, "¿Dónde Está la Justicia? A Call to Action on Behalf of Latino and Latina Youth in the U.S. Justice System," was commissioned by the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative, a national campaign to promote a fair and effective youth justice system and was prepared by the Institute for Children, Youth and Families at Michigan State University, in consultation with a number of national and grassroots Latino groups.

"This first ever national analysis of Latino and Latina youth in the juvenile justice system reveals alarming and dramatic inequities," said report author Francisco Villarruel with Michigan State University. "Latino and Latina youth are getting more punitive treatment for the same crimes, and the evidence suggests that the disparities are even worse than we know-inadequate data masks the truth depth of inequality."

Initial disparities that occur at arrest are compounded by later disparities, resulting in a "cumulative disadvantage" for Latino youth. For example, in Los Angeles in 1996-1998, Latino youth were arrested 2.3 times as often as White youth; prosecuted 2.4 times as often as White youth, and imprisoned 7.3 times as often as White youth. Consequently, the average length of incarceration is much longer for Latino youth than White youth, even when charged with the same offense. Latino youth charged with drug offenses were incarcerated for more than 5 months longer than White youth, almost 5 months longer for violent offenses, 1 month longer for property offenses.

In addition to suffering higher rates of confinement and longer periods of incarceration, Latino youth face specific barriers in the justice system. Lack of bilingual and culturally competent staff can result in harsher treatment, and profound confusion and frustration for youth and families who speak only Spanish or who have limited English proficiency. The Immigration and Naturalization Service incarcerates many Latino youth, often under punitive conditions, though in most instances they are not charged with any crime other than being in the United States without proper documentation. Anti-gang statutes in many states impose dramatically higher penalties on youth who police or courts believe are gang members, although such beliefs are often based on stereotypes about Latino youth.

While available data show that Latino youth receive harsher treatment than White youth, current data collection methods mask the full magnitude of the problem. Many states and the federal government ask only one question about race and ethnicity of youth in the system, and the choices are "White," "African-American," "and "Other" (or "Asian" and "Native American"). When ethnicity is not an available category, more than 95% of Latinos report their race as White.

"Although Latino youth are incarcerated in juvenile facilities throughout the country, the absence of separate data makes them an 'invisible' minority for purposes of planning and policy. We'll never have a fair and effective justice system for Latino youth until we collect the basic information," said Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center and coordinator of the Building Blocks for Youth initiative.

The study makes several recommendations for Latino communities, youth and families, law enforcement; advocates; researchers; public officials and policy-makers; and the juvenile justice system:

Public officials, policy-makers, and the justice system should:

* Eliminate racial profiling and other policies based explicitly or implicitly on racial or ethnic stereotypes.
* Collect data in a way that accurately counts Latino youth by separating them from White, African-American, and other youth
* Employ bilingual and culturally competent staff to ensure better services to the Latino community
* Reduce subjective or biased decision making by creating objective risk assessment instruments

Latino communities, youth and families should:

* Get organized at a local level to pressure the justice system to be accountable to Latino communities and youth.
* Call for the active inclusion of youth voices in policy development and implementation.
* Form Latino advisory groups to guide policy making and implementation in the law enforcement and justice systems.

The Building Blocks for Youth initiative ( is a national campaign to reduce over-representation and racial and ethnic disparities affecting youth of color in the justice system. The Institute for Children, Youth and Families at Michigan State University, a multidisciplinary institute supporting university-community collaborations in research, policy engagement, and outreach regarding children, youth and families from diverse communities (

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