Too many Latino men are living in prison
By RYAN S. KING and ANGELA MARIA ARBOLEDA in Modesto Bee
July 30, 2007
King is a policy analyst with The Sentencing Project. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Largely obscured by the rancorous debate surrounding U.S. immigration policy is the emergence of a trend that should be a cause of concern to all Latino communities: the explosion of the number of Latinos in prison.
There were 55,000 Latinos doing prison time in the United States in 1985. That figure has increased by more than 400 percent in 20 years, a substantially steeper rate of increase than for whites or blacks.
Currently, there are more than 450,000 Latinos in U.S. prisons or jails.
With one-in-six Latino males born today expected to spend some time in prison during their lives, the future portends devastating consequences for Latino communities.
This incarceration data stands in stark contrast to a growing body of research suggesting that Latinos, who now make up more than one of every five persons held behind bars, are less likely than other groups to commit crime and that the immigration of the 1990s may have been partially responsible for the historic declines in crime.
Causes for rising Latino incarceration are complex, but an important explanatory factor is the "war on drugs." Despite using drugs at a rate proportionate to their share in the general population, Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be sentenced to a state prison on a drug charge. Nearly one in four Latinos sitting in prison has been convicted of a drug offense.
Differential patterns in law enforcement -- where the police choose to pursue the war on drugs -- play a greater role in determining who is arrested and sentenced to prison than general trends in drug use.
Add to that the collateral consequences from a felony conviction.
These can include barriers to employment, denial of certain licenses, lack of access to education and housing aid, loss of voting rights, and, in some cases, deportation.
Such "invisible punishments" create substantial obstacles to a successful re-entry to the community and increase the likelihood of recidivism.
Despite this spate of distressing news, there are efforts that can be undertaken to stem the tide of disproportionate Latino incarceration.
First, lawmakers should heed the growing chorus of public officials, including high-ranking criminal justice practitioners, and revisit the wisdom of our current drug control strategy. This "lock 'em up" approach has resulted in a half-million people behind bars.
It takes a toll on communities of color while doing little to address the underlying causes of drug abuse. Investing in proven prevention and treatment strategies is far more productive than warehousing people. It's a much more effective tool to enhance public safety.
Secondly, state legislatures should expand upon the reforms implemented in 22 states since 2004 and reconsider such punitive sentencing provisions as mandatory minimums that expose individualsto punishments grossly disproportionate to the conduct for which they have been charged.
Restoring discretion to sentencing judges would permit full consideration of the circumstances of the offense. This could prevent the reoccurrence of cases like that of first-time offender Weldon Angelos, who, because of inflexible sentencing enhancements, was sentenced to prison for 55 years.
His offense? Three marijuana sales while possessing a weapon he never used.
The criminal justice system does not exist in a vacuum. Crime and its associated costs generally reflect a failure to provide equal access to resources such as education, employment, housing and health care. Inequalities in the criminal justice system extend far beyond policing, courts and corrections.
True reform can be achieved only when we seek to bring a broad range of community stakeholders to the table, and invest not merely in police and prisons but in neighborhoods and people.