Does Anyone Really Know How Many Latinos are in Jail?

While the statistics about Latinos in the criminal justice system are alarming and important, they are almost certainly underestimated and incomplete. In 2016, the Urban Institute surveyed publicly available criminal justice data across all states and the District of Columbia in five areas: arrests, prison population, prison population by offense, probation population and parole population. They found huge inconsistencies in how states collected ethnicity data across those areas, and they discovered many areas where it is not tracked at all. While 75 percent of states regularly reported data by ethnicity on at least one of the five measures, 39 percent reported for two or more measures, and only Alaska consistently reported across all five areas of the criminal justice system. Furthermore, states that have some of the largest Latino populations, score poorly.  California and Nevada only collect on one measure. Florida and New Mexico do not regularly collect data on Latinos at all. Texas meanwhile collects on four measures of the criminal justice system. 

Urban Institute’s interactive tool
How data on Latinos are collected State-by-state

Inconsistency in data collection and reporting seriously limits how much is known about Latinos in the criminal justice system. Latinos are often counted as white. This suggests that disparities between whites and Latinos, and between whites and people of color, are actually greater than reported. This phenomenon happens even in places with large, long-established Latino populations. Research by the Vera Institute found that in years when Harris, Dallas and Miami-Dade counties, among others, reported very few Latinos in custody, there were dramatic increases in the number of reported white inmates.

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Source: Vera Institute
Divided Justice: Trends in Black and White Jail Incarceration,

How bad data affects measures of disparities. The Vera Institute

Furthermore, five of the 20 jurisdictions that reported the largest increases in white incarceration rates from 1990 to 2013 also stopped reporting on Latinos in their jail data. These jurisdictions are St. Louis city, Missouri; Wake County, North Carolina; Salt Lake County, Utah; Virginia Beach city, Virginia; and Duval County, Florida. 

The Case for Better Data Collection

Beyond the difficulty in accurately measuring racial and ethnic disparities, the lack of detailed and consistent data collection impedes accurate evaluation of criminal justice programs. In a March 2018 op-ed in the New York Times, Amy Bach, executive director of Measure for Justice, discusses how the lack of consistent data collection has contributed to over incarceration in the U.S. With thousands of jurisdictions and departments collecting data in different ways, or not collecting it at all, state and local governments have made huge investments in public safety programs without any means of understanding whether they effectively reduce crime or exacerbate racial disparities.

Measures for Justice compiles criminal justice data at the county level and uses performance measures for Public Safety, Fair Process, and Fiscal Responsibility.  As of May 2018, they complied data from 6 states: Washington, Utah, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania with more data set to come. The data measure key points such as median sentencing for non-violent misdemeanors and median court fees and fines, which can vary widely from county-to-county within a single state.

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The Urban Institute recommends that law enforcement, corrections departments, and parole boards coordinate to collect the same race and ethnicity data in order to assess how the criminal justice system affects Latinos. Additional recommendations include:

  • States should follow Census Bureau standards by collecting race and ethnicity separately (i.e. White, non-Hispanic or Black, Hispanic) and on a self-reported basis. 
  • Data should be made readily available and reported publicly at least every two years. 
Open Data Policing works to increase transparency by publishing and visualizing traffic stop data from North Carolina (since 2002), Illinois (since 2005), and Maryland (since 2013). This first-of-its kind platform grew out of recommendations from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Case Study: North Carolina

"Without the data, nothing would have happened." —Durham City Council member Steve Schewel

In December of 2013, a vigil for 17-year-old Jesus “Chuy” Huerta  in Durham, NC  turned violent when a clash between protesters and police ended with tear gas, batons, and six people arrested. Before historic protests in Ferguson launched the issue onto the national stage in 2014, tensions between the police and community ran high in Durham, a city with a population of about 300,000 which is 38% Black and 13% Latino. Many in the community were outraged, alleging foul play over the death of the teenage boy who allegedly shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. He had been picked up at 3:00 AM on an outstanding trespassing charge from five months prior. The teenager was the third officer-involved death in Durham in six months, two of which were Latinos. 

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In 1999, North Carolina became the first state to mandate statewide data collection for state law enforcement through Senate Bill 76, which was later expanded to include almost all law enforcement in 2002. An analysis of stop data from 2000 to 2011 by a professor at UNC Chapel Hill found that Black people were 77% more likely and Latinos were 96% more likely to be searched than White people. Since these findings, activists in North Carolina have leveraged continued data collection for policy change.

In Durham, policy-makers initially resisted protesters’ demands for more police accountability, but they quickly pivoted to require written consent to search, with forms in English and Spanish, in cases of no probable cause. Years of data collection in the state allowed advocates to make a case for reform. Durham City Council member Steve Schewel told the New York Times, "Without the data, nothing would have happened." 

In addition to local policies, legal practitioners have used data to advocate on behalf of defendants. Raising Issues of Race in North Carolina Criminal Cases, published by the School of Government at UNC Chapel Hill, includes a chapter about how defense attorneys can use stop data to raise challenges around racial biases. One such case was successfully argued on behalf of a Latino man in Orange County, North Carolina.