Locking Up Latinos

meesh/Flickr

meesh/Flickr

In a concise, but long overdue op-ed in the Huffington Post, three activists made the case for why Latinos should support sentencing reform:

Consequently, Latinxs are twice as likely to be incarcerated as Whites and are over-represented in state prisons in 31 of the 50 U.S. states. They are also overrepresented in the federal system, where Latinxs —who are 17.4 percent of the U.S. population— make up 33.8 percent of the incarcerated population in federal prisons. Indeed, today, 1 in every 6 Latino men and 1 in every 45 Latina women can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. As a result, 1 in 28 Latinx children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent compared to 1 in 57 white children.

These are troubling statistics, but they fall short in reporting how severely mass incarceration has affected Latino communities. The op-ed also failed to mention that most statistical data on Latino imprisonment is undercounted because several states don’t record ethnicity. And some areas like Orange County, Florida classify inmates as only Black or white.

It is also noteworthy to acknowledge that these statistics don’t consider subgroups. Socio-economic differences reveal that not all Latino groups encounter the criminal justice system at the same rate. In the 2009 book Inheriting the City, a group of sociologists reported that in New York City, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans were more likely to live in poor, high-crime neighborhoods with low-performing schools than their South American counterparts (Ecuadorians, Colombians and Peruvians) who lived in middle-class communities with low crime rates and decent schools. Latinos are overrepresented in the city’s jail system by making up 29 percent of the city’s population, but 33 percent of its jails as of 2013. However, the umbrella term Latino hides which groups fill the city’s prisons.

These statistical limitations show that the best way to understand mass incarceration’s impact on Latinos is to examine its effects at the state and local level. This method reveals that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are incarcerated disproportionately since the Northeast is where Latinos have the highest rates of imprisonment on a per-capita basis. While the general data is troubling enough, some communities will continually struggle to achieve upward mobility if sentencing reform isn’t implemented. Unfortunately, numerous communities are already damaged.

In 2011 Al Día reported on a study that followed almost half of the 51 percent of Latino males who dropped out of high school in Philadelphia between the ages of 18 and 24. The report found them all under the control of the criminal justice system. Holyoke and Springfield are two out of the three highest-ranked towns and cities in western Massachusetts where children have a parent incarcerated. Latinos are the largest groups in those areas by making up 46.8 percent and 38.8 percent of the population. Chelsea, Massachusetts, which is 62.1 percent Latino with about 40,000 residents, had the highest rate at 10.5 percent.

The impact of mass incarceration doesn’t end once inmates are released from prison. Just like most formerly incarcerated individuals, Latinos with criminal records face discrimination in public housing, employment, welfare, and student loans. Connecticut and Massachusetts have the second and third highest unemployment rates for Latinos at around 11 percent as of 2015.

These issues will not improve on their own if the Latino community casts a blind eye to the problem. They will likely continue because the existence of additional barriers in these communities. In Pennsylvania, Latino students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended from school, which further marginalizes them. The top four poorest school districts in Massachusetts are all in cities were Latinos are the largest group. In fact, seven out of the top 10 poorest schools in the state are located in Springfield and Holyoke. These and other problems makes upward mobility difficult.

Most of the discussion on mass incarceration of Latinos has largely focused on the undocumented population. Indeed, undocumented individuals experience almost daily fears of police pulling them over and encounter horrendous living conditions in immigrant detention centers. Nevertheless, exclusively focusing on the undocumented population makes mass incarceration appear as an issue that doesn’t severely impact native-born Latinos. As a result, some might resort to apathy based on the belief that the problem will become a nonissue as Latinos become more integrated —a notion based on the erroneous assumption that all Latinos are newcomers.

The real question for Latino political organizations and local activists is: will they act? Should other individuals who live comfortably feel empathy about a population that is isolated from the mainstream? There has always been a small, but influential segment in the Latino community of middle- and upper-middle class professionals who feared that the concerns of Latinos would be associated with African Americans. Historically, some elite members in the community have avoided discussing issues the group shared with African Americans at the expense of its most disadvantaged people. While Latinos are not incarcerated at the same rate as African Americans, they still have a higher rate than whites.

As long as this gap remains, a significant percentage of Latinos will be stuck in persistent poverty –a reality that will disproportionately affect certain subgroups.

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Originally from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Aaron G. Fountain, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Indiana University Bloomington. He tweets from @aaronfountainjr.

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