For Latino Youth, "La Justicia" is Hard to Find

Althea Izawa-Hayden
July 26, 2002

At 13, Chino Hardin had her first encounter with the juvenile justice system. After fighting with a schoolmate, Hardin was handcuffed and escorted off school grounds into a police car. At one point, she was chained from waist to ankles, with ankle cuffs so tight that she couldn't take a full step forward.

Hardin, now 22, was on hand in Washington, D.C. on July 18, 2002 for the release of the new report, "Donde Esta La Justicia? A Call to Action on Behalf of Latino and Latina Youth in the U.S. Justice System." Among its conclusions, the report found that harsh treatment of Latinos in their first encounter with the system, such as Hardin experienced, is just the beginning of a process in which Latinos pay a higher price than white youth at every step.

The study is the seventh published by Building Blocks for Youth, an initiative to document and reduce the over-representation and disparate treatment of youth of color in the justice system. The authors reviewed research literature and available state data on Latino youth, surveyed states with significant Latino populations or with fast-growing Latino populations, and carried out meetings and interviews with young Latinos and organizations that serve them.

Discouraging Findings
The researchers struggled with data collection, noting that states do not have uniform definitions for the terms "Latino" and "Hispanic," and that some states do not include either term as an ethnic category on documents such as arrest forms or intake forms for detention facilities. Failure to separate ethnicity and race on such documents also leads to problems, since Latino youth may be of any race.

Despite these problems, the authors were able to draw several strong conclusions:

  • Available research indicates Latino youth are more likely than white youth to be arrested. A 1998 Los Angeles study, for example, found Latinos were about twice as likely as white youth to be arrested for violent offenses, drug offenses, and sex offenses.
  • In many states, Latino youth are over-represented in pretrial detention. A 1996 study found that in Connecticut, for example, there were almost five times as many Latino youth held in pre-trial detention than would be expected given their numbers in the general youth population.
  • Latino youth are more likely than white youth to serve time in adult jails and prisons. In a handful of states, including New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Hawaii, Latino youth were between 7 and 17 times more likely to be incarcerated in adult facilities than white youth, according to a Human Rights Watch analysis of information from the 2000 Census.
  • Available research indicates that in every offense category, Latino youth face a longer average length of incarceration than any other ethnic/racial group.

Mark Soler, President of the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative, said "This report raises serious concerns about the treatment of Latino youth in the justice system: that available research demonstrates that Latino youth are treated more harshly than White youth, even when charged with the same type of offenses; that data collection throughout the country is inadequate, so that we don't know basic numbers of Latino youth going through the justice system; and that Latino youth face specific barriers in the justice system such as lack of bilingual staff and services, and lack of cultural competence on the part of staff and key decision makers."

The lack of consistent and reliable data frustrates efforts to solve the problem, said Marisa Demeo of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "We have yet to discover the extent of discrimination in the system," noted Demeo.

Language and cultural divides
According to the report, the lack of cultural awareness among law enforcement, as well as shortages of bilingual officers and other employees, seriously disadvantages Latino youth.

Hardin recalled many Latino youth in juvenile facilities where she was held couldn't communicate their basic needs, such as asking for water, to go to the bathroom or for help. She said some guards who did speak and understand Spanish pretended not to, just to intimidate the younger juvenile offenders. Mai Fernandez, the managing director of the Latin American Youth Center, commented on the ongoing friction between Latinos and the police.

But these problems can be properly addressed. Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), told the audience that when police receive training to address cultural and bilingual issues, the success rate is quite high. He said that to have any substantial impact, though, such training programs must be implemented in communities across the country.

Soler commented, "There are a number of national and local organizations of African-American, Latino and Asian police officers that are very interested in good training programs on racial and ethnic diversity."

Solutions that work
The report notes that communities that make concerted efforts to reduce the disproportionate representation of Latino youth in their juvenile justice systems can succeed. It describes successful programs in two counties: Santa Cruz County in California and Multnomah County in Oregon.

In Santa Cruz, where Latinos make up 35.2 percent of the youth population, the population of the county's juvenile detention facilities has gone from being 64 percent Latino in 1998 to less than 50 percent in 2001. Santa Cruz succeeded by implementation of strong data collection policies, cultural sensitivity training, encouraging more family and parent involvement and strengthened community-based services for youth.

In Multnomah County, where both Latino and black youth were overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, a six-year effort resulted in identical detention rates for white youth and youth of color. There, the county worked to establish more alternatives to detention, including shelter care, foster homes, home detention, and a day reporting center; diversified its staff to reflect the county's demographics; and trained community police officers.

Soler said, "Other counties should establish reduction of disproportionately as a goal, identify leadership on the issue, bring all key players to the table to develop an effective plan of action."

A Call to Action
The report calls for action from within the Latino community, through knowledge, organization, participation and collaboration. Forming support groups, developing public service announcements and information workshops are just a few suggested steps. Additionally, the report calls for law enforcement to actively work to improve bilingual staff support in jails, detention centers and courtrooms. And it recommends cultural sensitivity training to improve relations between Latino communities and law enforcement officers.

Angela Arboleda, civil rights policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza concluded, "This is a great opportunity for us to take action. There's a lot of work to do. Now let's get to it."

More information on the report "Donde Esta la Justicia? A Call to Action on Behalf of Latino and Latina Youth in the U.S. Justice System" is accessible at Building Blocks for Youth.

Althea Izawa-Hayden is a former Connect for Kids intern.