Focusing on Latinos in the U.S. Criminal Justice System

By: Nancy Rodriguez

Data Analysis Jail Populations Racial Disparities June 12, 2023

Three new policy briefs have major implications for Latinos in the justice system, including in American jails, based on data and research from sites supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. The briefs explore how to better track Latino involvement in criminal justice systems, the role of language accessibility in criminal justice systems, and the value of adopting a nuanced approach to immigration enforcement policies at the local level.

A Review of Data Collection Practices and Systems-Involvement

The first brief, “Exploring Latino/a Representation in Local Criminal Justice Systems,” is a review of data collection practices and systems-involvement in local criminal justice systems, with a focus on Latino/a representation. It examines how local agencies in participating sites capture racial and ethnicity information. It also explores the involvement of Latinos/as in local criminal justice systems, including racial and ethnic disparities at the front door, in pretrial outcomes, and in criminal case outcomes. Its findings shed light on the development of much-needed data-driven reforms to the system to further racial equity.

Today, nearly one in five people in the U.S. self-identify as being of Latino origin. Remarkably, despite the size and diversity of the Latino population in the U.S., we do not know how many Latinos are arrested. That’s because we are still not collecting the data in enough detail.

How Latino and Hispanic ethnicity data is stored in local criminal justice systems is inconsistent and inhibits system-wide understanding of racial and ethnic disparities across local jurisdictions.

Even where fields exist to capture ethnicity information within a database, the data is not always consistently collected for all cases passing through key criminal justice system points. Even where agencies have the capacity to capture Latinos’ ethnicity, low rates of reporting and high proportions of missing data impedes accurate measurement of Latino outcomes.

At the front door to the justice system—arrest and jail booking—Latinos in all four sites—Charleston County, South Carolina; Harris County, Texas; Multnomah County, Oregon; and, Palm Beach County, Florida—make up a smaller proportion of those arrested or booked compared to their countywide population. Conversely, Black and Indigenous individuals were over-represented in arrests and jail bookings, relative to their countywide populations.

Latino and White rates of justice involvement were similar—and in many cases rates of Latino involvement were lower than that of Whites. However, Black individuals—particularly young Black individuals—were subject to substantially elevated rates of arrest, jail booking, and court convictions (and dismissals), demonstrating a considerable concentration of justice system contact for the Black community.

The brief makes several policy recommendations to address these disparities and disproportionalities. They include improving data collection practices, developing a standard set of categories to facilitate clear standards for data sharing and data translation between systems, encouraging regular examination of outcomes by race, ethnicity, and age group, and promoting community engagement and collaboration to identify ways to reflect the Latino/a population more accurately in local justice systems.

Establishing, Implementing, and Maintaining a Language Access Program

The second brief focuses on language accessibility in criminal justice systems, specifically focusing on the SJC. Language barriers can negatively impact legal representation and outcomes for non-English speakers in criminal cases.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires federally funded agencies to provide meaningful access to their programs and activities. This brief surveyed several local criminal justice systems and discovered significant gaps in the availability of language services for those who are LEP despite the provisions of Title VI. The report finds that while organizations and agencies within local criminal justice systems often receive federal funding, and are therefore mandated to provide language services, specific practices and the extent to which services are made available in these systems remains relatively unknown.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Data around language needs and services is inconsistently collected. Less than half of respondents reported collecting data on how frequently language services are utilized, and about half reported making efforts to address language access complaints beyond a case-by-case basis (e.g., regular reviews of complaints and outreach to specific language minority groups).
  • Despite the existence of bilingual and/or multilingual staff, most are not formally equipped to provide interpretation services. Approximately 94 percent of respondents reported that they have bilingual and/or multilingual employees. However, less than half of these employees are certified translators, and less than half offer pay differentials to employees who use their language skills on the job.
  • Translated content is lacking in digital spaces, written materials, and public signage. Less than half of respondents said their official website contains translated content, and less than half reported that public notices are translated into a language other than English. Despite more than half of all respondents reporting that they have translated materials, there are some languages for which no written translation is provided by any of the respondents. 

The report recommends that every individual who meets local criminal justice systems has access to services in their primary language. It makes the following policy recommendations:

  • Facilitate the hiring and training of bilingual and/or multilingual staff and interpreters and prioritize pay differentials for staff that are certified to use their language skills on the job.
  • Consistently collect and analyze data to better understand the language needs of local populations and assess whether the language capacities of the organization are sufficient to meet the identified language needs.
  • Ensure that all written content is translated, or can be quickly translated if needed.

It is important to note that language accessibility in criminal justice systems is not only about providing interpreters. It also involves the ability of individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing and those who have cognitive disabilities (e.g., intellectual disability) to communicate effectively with criminal justice system actors. In addition, individuals must be able to understand the legal process and make informed decisions about whether they want an attorney or to represent themselves without being coerced by others.

Immigration Enforcement Policies and Detainer Trends in SJC Sites

The third policy brief outlines the landscape of immigration policies across four SJC sites— Harris County, Texas, Los Angeles County, California, New York City, New York, and Cook County, Illinois—and illustrates how jail populations intersect with immigration enforcement policy.

Key findings include:

  • Specific attention on immigration is required to address racial inequities in local justice systems. The findings indicate that pursuing policies designed to lower jail incarceration and improve racial equity do not by default include an assessment of how immigration policies impact the system involvement of Latinos/as and undocumented persons.
  • Jurisdictions restrict and permit collaboration with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to varying and inconsistent degrees. While 70 percent of sites enacted limitations on some type of immigration enforcement cooperation, nearly 78 percent of jurisdictions lack a formal policy on ICE detention contracts; the absence of clear policy may permit further collaboration.
  • A majority of jurisdictions lack formal policies regarding the use of state and local resources to enforce federal immigration law. The majority of sites have no formal policy. However, 18 percent of sites restrict the use of funds for immigration enforcement, while 6 percent of sites expressly permit the use of local resources.

The brief includes policy recommendations for SJC sites:

  • Restrict the use of state and local resources to execute policies that enforce federal immigration law and contribute to racial disparities.
  • Limit local data sharing and collaboration with ICE.
  • Limit the outsourcing of local jail beds for immigration detention purposes.
  • Identify how local immigration policies are impacting the system involvement of Latino/as and undocumented populations

Nuanced criminal justice reform is needed around immigration policies at the local level. Future research should examine the intersection of immigration policies and the policing of Latino communities to offer insight into the treatment and justice system outcomes of Latinos/as and undocumented immigrants.

Collectively, I hope these three policy briefs will form the basis for deepening the national conversation about racial equity in the criminal justice system—particularly through a Latino/a lens.

What Has Changed in The Three Years Since George Floyd’s Death?

By: Chandra Tyler, Wilford Pinkney Jr., Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons, Lisa Varon

Community Engagement Featured Jurisdictions Racial Disparities May 24, 2023

It has been three years since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Mr. Floyd’s murder energized an international movement for racial justice with many pledging to change the role of law enforcement and more.

But what has changed? We asked individuals involved with the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) to reflect on the landscape for criminal justice reform.

Clockwise from top left: Chandra Tyler, Safety and Justice Challenge Equity Inclusion Consultant for Mecklenburg County; Wilford Pinkney Jr., Director of the Office of Violence Prevention at the City of St. Louis; Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons, Founder and Executive Director of Why Not Prosper, Inc.; Lisa Varon, Deputy Director of the Office of Criminal Justice at the City of Philadelphia.

Chandra Tyler, Safety and Justice Challenge Equity Inclusion Consultant for Mecklenburg County

As we approach the three-year anniversary of George Floyd’s brutal death, I sit in deep reflection with both heaviness and hope. The devastating tragedy on May 25, 2020, which ignited an enormous blaze of protests, policy changes and social movements, appeared to be the long overdue awakening that so many fought and prayed for. Fast-forward to present day. America’s sense of urgency and progressive efforts has slowly lost its fire.

“It feels more like a Superbowl commercial. It came and it went,” Gemini Boyd, a member of the Mecklenburg County Community Engagement Task Group recently told me.

Though disappointing, these are the moments that remind us why we continue this race. Mecklenburg County Criminal Justice Community Engagement Task Group is just getting started. With intentionality and vision, we are mending the relationships between community and systems, pouring into our youth, and identifying gaps and resources needed to build a viable, sustainable, and equitable greater Mecklenburg County community. Through our 3 E’s: Engagement, Education, and Empowerment, our mission is to lead with collaboration and improve policy and practice changes in the criminal justice system. In honor of George Floyd and countless others, we press on. The marathon continues!

Wilford Pinkney Jr., Director of the Office of Violence Prevention at the City of St. Louis

The murder of George Floyd was a catalyzing moment. It created a window of opportunity, but sustaining the momentum is the challenge. The key to sustaining reform is collaboration, a comprehensive approach and sustainable infrastructure.

Since 2020, St. Louis has enacted numerous policies related to reimagining public safety. We did not have to look far for solutions. Numerous reports were published in the last nine years that created a comprehensive picture and outline for a strategic focus. The reports promoted collaboration and pointed to the need for a comprehensive approach to address existing inequities in order to create safe and healthy communities. The challenge was not ideas; it was action. Collaborations were created in 2020 that started the process of better aligning resources and redesigning systems, structures, and policies. We started building the infrastructure for a new system of public safety.

In 2021 Tishaura Jones was elected mayor on a platform of using national models of public safety and rejecting the false choice between being “tough” on crime and addressing the root causes of violence. This approach garnered support from diverse stakeholders ranging from the elected leaders and community organizations to residents in the cities most impacted neighborhoods. Under Mayor Jones’ leadership the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP) was created by ordinance and seeded with ten million dollars which ensures it is a permanent part of the city’s government structure.

The mayor’s comprehensive approach to public safety also includes policies aimed at designing safer streets, offering down payment assistance and guaranteed basic income to low-income residents, and year-round jobs for youth. St. Louis has the model for sustaining reform, a committed chief executive, a strategic focus, support from a diverse group of stakeholders, and sustainable strategies.

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons, Founder and Executive Director of Why Not Prosper, Inc.

George Floyd’s death brought people’s awareness of racism back to life. People have a new lens on since it happened, and it’s still an intense change in how we are all looking at the world. There needs to be a differentiation between the understanding of racism and this focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training, though, because it’s different. The city of Philadelphia has done a lot to intentionally focus on DEI. And funding has shifted because of it. But there does need to be that deep commitment to focusing on racism.

In Philadelphia, specifically, the advocates and the organizers are taking no stuff. We’ve got commissions for jail, the police, parole, the prisons, and probation. Because the funding is there and people are sick and tired of the historical racism, all those things are coming together. And you can’t miss out on the anti-violence work either. People are more aware of things now. I feel our justice partners are coming around. They’re used to the same old systems. But they’re starting to pull back the curtain on racism and realize how they can change things. They’re just beginning to pull the curtain apart and say, “Now let me see what this is about, and how I might help.”

Lisa Varon, Deputy Director of the Office of Criminal Justice at the City of Philadelphia

In the three years since the murder of George Floyd, there has been a shift to focus on community strength instead of community suffering. In Philadelphia, an innovative sustainability plan is in place to bring in more meaningful community involvement and to continuously engage justice stakeholders in actionable reform efforts. To date, the city of Philadelphia has made an annual commitment north of two million dollars in the General Fund to support a wide range of initiatives and related personnel, that supplement the series of investments made through SJC. This work has three major components: experiential learning opportunities for criminal legal system stakeholders, several capstone-focused workgroups (all with a racial equity focus), and the eventual merging with the county Community Justice Advisory Board (CJAB). 

The experiential learning opportunities are an imaginative way of breaking down some of the silos that exist in the various criminal legal systems sectors. The learning opportunities look like robust pieces of training in racial equity and implementing reforms, site visits to local community-based organizations, and chances to explore the criminal legal system by learning how people travel through the legal system and identifying where people are most likely to get caught up in the system. 

As previously mentioned, sustainability efforts in Philadelphia have already begun. There are five SJC-focused workgroups that are continuing to propel this work forward: jail reduction strategy, data, community engagement/ racial and ethnic disparities, pretrial, and the common pleas case processing workgroups. All these groups have two things in common: dedication to the sustainability of promising practices and a commitment to have racial equity built into the reforms the groups hope to produce.  

Lastly, when we think of how far we have come in criminal legal system reform in the three years since the death of George Floyd, the most important thing to do is look forward. The work of the SJC will only be ending in name in Philadelphia. Strategic workgroups will continue to convene through the Philadelphia CJAB with the expectation that they will produce actionable recommendations for change in the local system. In addition, we are maintaining our commitment to bring the necessary City resources to sustain these efforts and outcomes as a long-term investment strategy in our community.

Issue Brief

Community Engagement Pretrial Services Racial Disparities May 23, 2023

Establishing, Implementing, and Maintaining a Language Access Program

UCI School of Sociology: Department of Criminology, Law and Society

The MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) in 2015 with the goals of safely reducing jail incarceration and addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. The SJC Network currently includes fifty-seven sites. The local criminal justice systems in these localities serve racially and ethnically diverse populations comprised of subgroups with different characteristics and needs, including people who are limited English proficient (LEP). As defined by the U.S. Department of Justice (Guidance to Federal Financial Assistance Recipients Regarding Title VI Prohibition Against National Origin Discrimination Affecting Limited English Proficient Persons, 2002), a person is LEP if their primary language is anything other than English and if they have a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English. An estimated 25 million people in the United States are LEP (2020 American Community Survey, 5-Year Estimates). The national origin nondiscrimination provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VI”) require recipients of federal financial assistance to provide people who are LEP with meaningful access to their programs and activities (e.g., in-language communication, telephonic interpretation, and translation of vital documents).

Many organizations and agencies within local criminal justice systems receive federal financial assistance and are thus legally obligated to provide language services. When law enforcement agencies, court systems, and correctional systems provide adequate language services they strengthen access to justice for people who are LEP - e.g., providing life-saving public safety assistance, supporting victims of crime, and delivering vital medical and behavioral care to people who are incarcerated. While national guidance for improving language accessibility exists, the extent to which language services are available in local justice systems is relatively unknown.


Racial Disparities March 8, 2023

Exploring Latino/a Representation in Local Criminal Justice Systems: A Review of Data Collection Practices and Systems-Involvement

Nancy Rodriguez and Rebecca Tublitz

Today, just under one in five people in the U.S. self-identify as being of Latino origin. Yet, remarkably, despite the size and diversity of the Latino population in the U.S., we do not know how many Hispanic and Latino people are arrested. That's because we are still not collecting the data in enough detail. The U.S. has simply never paid close enough attention to the experience of Latino people in our criminal justice system. A new report seeks to change that. The report, "Exploring Latino/a Representation in Local Criminal Justice Systems: A Review of Data Collection Practices and Systems-Involvement", finds that Latino and White rates of justice involvement are similar. Often, the rates for Latinos are lower than those of Whites. But these findings could be the result of the inaccurate representation of Latinos in criminal justice data. This report should be the first of many to take a comprehensive look at this jail population. Its findings will help us develop much-needed reforms to the system and further racial equity.

Reflections on Power During Black History Month

By: Gordon Goodwin, Alex Frank

Community Engagement Racial Disparities February 21, 2023

This past November, during our bi-annual Facing Race Conference, community organizer Sendolo Diaminah–Co-Director and Founder of the Carolina Federation–made the following statement: “We have power, we want more, and we want to be responsible with it and be accountable to an ethic.” This bold statement was shared to challenge the audience of 3,000 racial justice advocates to “release our fear of power”, while elevating the importance of “being responsible with power”.

We offer this in the spirit of deep reflection this Black History month. We at Race Forward and the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) believe in the audacious dream of a multi-racial democracy. We envision a world without prisons, and one in which people of color thrive with power and purpose. But we have a long way to go.

In GARE, we support a network of over 400 city, state, regional jurisdictions, and state departments committed to advancing racial equity. And as we know, the work to advance racial equity requires disrupting and shifting power to the people most harmed and impacted by systemic racism. Within the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) community, this often means letting go, making space, and centering the expertise of system-impacted people and frontline staff, while investing in infrastructure for community-led government accountability.

On the heels of Black History Month, our team will be hosting the SJC Racial Equity Cohort sites–Cook County, Pima County, Philadelphia, and New Orleans–in Montgomery, Alabama, on the Indigenous land of the Muscogee people, as the first of a three-part Learning Exchange Retreat series. We are gathering there to hold space, build solidarity, and deepen our collective learning about our history of colonization, genocide, enslavement, and mass incarceration, in order to support the Focused Racial Equity Cohort Sites’ work in that social, historical, and political analysis.

We will be joined by community leaders, people who have been harmed by the justice system, and government leaders seeking to make change from the inside. Preparing for this event reminds us of the generational trauma of our people, and the impact of that trauma today. But we do not want to use this platform to focus on trauma. Instead, let us center generational resilience.

Generational resilience lives in every cell of our bodies. It surfaces when we cook, share a meal, listen to music, soak our feet, dance, laugh, and cry. While generational resilience is a personal experience, it is also a political expression. We are reminded of Shaun Ginwright, an author, activist, and professor in the Africana Studies Department at San Francisco State University, and his writing about this: “Healing centered engagement is explicitly political, rather than clinical,” he writes. “When people advocate for policies and opportunities that address causes of trauma, such as lack of access to mental health, these activities contribute to a sense of purpose, power and control over life situations.”

Earlier this month, we all witnessed Tyre Nichols killing at the hands of Memphis, Tennessee law enforcement as a result of being severely beaten and left uncared for. We, along with others across the country, grieve for Tyre’s family and his community which continues to recount how they have been terrorized by law enforcement. Public safety requires public trust; but the history of law enforcement was not built on trust, it was built on White supremacist “slave patrols” and a “law and order” paradigm that continues to haunt Black and Indigenous People of Color today.

Every day across the country, law enforcement agencies welcome a new cadre of officers who swear an oath not to a Governor, or a legislature, a Police Chief, Commissioner, or a political party, but to the United States Constitution. Yet, every year, thousands of Black and Indigenous People of Color lose their lives at the hands of law enforcement.

We cannot train or program our way out of this human rights crisis. We need to disrupt and shift power. What would it look like, and feel like, to shift power? To truly listen to and follow the leadership of the people most harmed by police brutality? To center our generational resilience? And in the words of Sendolo Diaminah, to “release our fear of power” while building our capacity to “be responsible with power”?