Criminal Justice Is Becoming a 'Latino Issue'

Yet there’s still a great deal we don’t know about Latinos and the criminal justice system.

Police officers face rows of Latino residents in a meeting room.
An information town hall for Latino residents in Hillsborough, N.C. (Gerry Broome / AP)

Immigration has been the signature issue of political campaigns that want to appeal to Latinos, a group that has grown to encompass 17 percent of the population. But the last few years have poked big holes in the idea that Latinos only care about immigration, showing that Latino voters also care about terrorism, social security, and the environment. A growing number of Latinos are also becoming concerned about criminal justice reform, as more join the call for systemic changes at the federal and state levels.

Latinos are overrepresented both among victims of violence and among those behind bars. Latinos under 30 are almost three times as likely to be homicide victims as whites the same age, according to the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at USC. They are also more likely to be threatened or attacked with a gun. And when Latinos report crimes, the report is less likely to lead to an arrest than the same crimes do when the victims are white.

In a 2014 report, the Violence Policy Center gathered valuable information on the profiles of Latino victims of crime. The homicide rate is more than twice as high as that of  whites, and homicide is the second-leading cause of death for Latinos 15 to 24 years old. About 41 percent of Latino homicide victims in 2011 were younger than 24. Among blacks, the rate was 40 percent, and among whites it was 22 percent. In prisons, 20 percent are Latino, according to the Department of Justice, which indicates that if current rates continue, one of every six Latino men can expect to spend time in jail over their lifetime.

Yet a great deal of data that would help policymakers and advocates understand Latinos’ relationship to  law enforcement has yet to be collected––there is much more data about whites and blacks’ encounters with the criminal justice system.

After hitting some dead-ends in my search for answers about Latinos’ perceptions of, and experiences with the penal institutions and law-enforcement authorities in the country, I reached out to Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Texas, Dallas, with some of my most pressing questions. An abridged and edited version of our conversation follows.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: I’m trying to address the question of whether Latinos care enough, or care at all, or should care more about criminal justice reform. What’s your perspective on that?

Alex Piquero: There are two main things that the research evidence is very clear about. The first one is, unfortunately, we do not have a lot of information on Hispanics in the criminal justice system, in general, whether it’s their offending, whether it’s their perceptions of the system. That’s primarily because of the lack of data collection that has occurred in this country for over a hundred years.

We’re getting better, we’re now starting to collect that data. For example, the FBI started to collect that information with arrest statistics. Traditionally, most of the research on criminal justice issues, whether it’s looking at offending patterns or incarceration rates, or people’s perceptions about the criminal justice system and their experiences has been only focused on blacks and whites, because of data constraints. Now we’re starting to get a little bit of a picture with respect to Hispanic and Latino views.

Lantigua-Williams: What do you think has been the effect of this lack of data, specifically on Latinos?

Piquero: We just had no idea what Hispanics felt about with respect to the criminal justice system or their experiences. That’s been one of the very big limiting factors of that area of work, that’s really important to say because we don’t have fifty years of research on a topic like that, whereas we do with respect to whites and African Americans. That said, the most recent research is complicated because there’s a lot of variability within Hispanics.

Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Central Americans, they may not see and/or interpret the criminal justice system in the same way. Sometimes you’re going to see differences within the groups, but we have very little information, for example, on what Puerto Ricans think about the criminal justice system because, typically, those studies have always lumped together the various Hispanic groups. Now, that said, Hispanics care about the criminal justice system just as much as whites and African Americans do. They are interested in it, they have experiences about it, and I think Hispanics are no different from whites and African Americans in that they see needs for reform. There’s no perfect system, but there’s not a lot of variability with respect to what parts of the system they may want to see reformed.

Lantigua-Williams: Let’s go back a little bit to your point about the different subsets of Latinos. What are some of the key factors that may play in differentiating how these groups, by nationality, might view the criminal justice system?

Piquero: There’s several here. Some might be emerging from where they come from. For example, the experiences that Puerto Ricans have in their home country and say, for example, Brazilians have in their country, or El Salvadorans have in their country with respect to general practices and interactions with the criminal justice system might be different across those three countries. When they come to America, they get experiences with an entirely different criminal justice system. You have people who will come from one jurisdiction or one country where things are a particular way. That might be very different from another country that’s also Hispanic/Latino but does criminal justice a different way. Then they come to America and its entirely different from them. There’s not only a variability across the countries that Hispanics and Latinos might come from but there’s also going to be variability with how they deal with and interpret the United States criminal justice system.

Lantigua-Williams: Let me ask you about immigrant status and whether you, in your work, have come across anything that indicates that immigrant status, whether you are a fifth-generation American-born Latino or a recently arrived person who has a green card. Do these differences impact how you perceive the criminal justice?

Piquero: There literally is only a handful of studies that have actually looked at this issue that you’re raising. The reason why is because no one has been able to collect the data on first-generation, second-generation immigrants and then looking at Hispanics, and then comparing them to native-born Americans. You’re asking the right questions but we haven’t gotten the data in a really good format. The data just has not been available. It’s a really unfortunate thing.

In the studies that have been done, and again, these are a limited set of studies, less than five studies that look at individual perceptions and individual behavior, what we know is that first-generation immigrants actually offend at lower rates than native-born Americans. This is just first-generation immigrants, we’re not talking about legal status because that data doesn’t exist at the individual level. Just look at first-generation immigrants, their offending patterns are less than those individuals who are born in America, are native-born Americans. That’s the first thing.

The second thing that we’re seeing, and again, these are very preliminary studies, is that first-generation immigrants actually have very strong, supportive beliefs about the criminal justice system. Why that could be the case, there are a lot of different philosophies but one argument that people have made is that some of the countries they are leaving from, they’re leaving very repressive style of criminal justice experiences and the legal systems. When they come to America, America is the land of opportunity and so they see it as a chance to better themselves, their lives for themselves and their lives for their families. They might sit back and say, “You know what? We have this opportunity, we’ve got to play by the rules. We’re going to follow the law. We’re going to believe in the system.” That might be one reason why their offending rates are lower. Again, it’s a really thin knowledge base, but that’s what the first set of studies have actually shown.

Lantigua-Williams: What are some of the key questions that are left unanswered, that you’d want to tackle first with research?

Piquero: I’d want to know how they perceive the system in terms of fairness. I’d want to know if the issue, with respect to differential stop rates, affects Hispanics the way it may affect other groups. I’d want to know what kind of sentences they may receive. I’d want to know what kind of offending rates they have. Part of this reason is because police departments don’t collect data on Hispanic and Latino ethnicities. It’s a very difficult piece of information to obtain. We just do not have the level of detail that is needed to really understand the experiences of Hispanics in the criminal justice system. We’re getting better, but we’re just not there.