Criminal justice reform is no longer optional in California. Overflowing prisons, budget-busting costs and federal court orders have seen to that. Now an equally unstoppable force is emerging to shape solutions - the state's growing Latino population.
Immigration tops media coverage of Latino concerns for good reason, but California's search for alternatives to mass incarceration puts Latinos at the center of a decision-making process that cannot be postponed. Latinos have paid disproportionate costs for the dysfunction. They'll have to play a disproportionate role in any fix.
The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California conducted a two-year study of existing research on Latinos in every phase of the justice system, reviewing crime data, dozens of academic studies, public opinion surveys and government reports. Key findings are summarized in a new report being released today by the nonprofit Californians for Safety and Justice, painting a troubling picture of compounded injuries for Latino individuals, families and communities.
Compared with whites, Latinos are more likely to be murdered, killed by strangers and shot. They get burglarized more often and are more likely to experience multiple crimes.
Research also reveals a pattern of cumulative disadvantage in the justice system, in which Latinos face unequal treatment at every stage, from unjustified police stops to harsher sentencing.
For example, a 2005 analysis of felony defendants in urban courts found that Latinos were less likely to be released on their own recognizance, and, if they got bail, faced higher amounts than African Americans or whites under similar circumstances. A 2004 analysis of rulings in urban courts across the country found that the likelihood of incarceration for Latinos is 44 percent higher than whites when convicted of property crimes and 53 percent higher than whites for drug crimes.
By being both more vulnerable to crime and disadvantaged in every phase of the justice system, Latinos are poorly served by current policies and practices. Matters are made worse by the special circumstances that arise when a large share of the Latino population is foreign born. Immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born individuals, yet law enforcement and justice practices can be unnecessarily harsh for immigrants.
The system's failings are evident in a survey of California Latino voters conducted in May and June by Californians for Safety and Justice. Nearly 8 in 10 Latino voters support shortening criminal sentences and using the savings to invest in education, health services and crime prevention efforts. Seven in 10 Latinos endorse community supervision versus jail for low-risk offenders awaiting trial. And, perhaps most important, 3 in 4 back moves to give judges more flexibility to base sentencing on individual circumstances rather than rigid mandatory minimums.
Based on such findings, 10 Latino organizations have joined Californians for Safety and Justice in proposing a set of recommended changes. It is no surprise that Latinos are in the vanguard of reform; it is in their communities that the battles to create a new criminal justice system will be won or lost.
It is among Latinos that the twin challenges of prevention and recidivism must be conquered, stopping crime in the first place and stopping it from becoming a way of life.
Moreover, Latinos will have to support public expenditures for new policing strategies, programs that offer alternatives to jail as nonviolent people await trial, as well as post-incarceration drug treatment and health care that address drivers of crime.
The strategy of mass incarceration has inflicted a disproportionate cost on Latinos for many years. Fairness demands that they should now exercise a disproportionate voice in shaping an alternative. Put simply, California needs a new justice system, and it cannot be created without Latinos' committed support and participation.
Roberto Suro is an author, professor and director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California.