The Concomitant Plight of Latinos Under a Broken and Racialized Criminal Justice System




Michelle Alexander left some unfinished business when she shook America's consciousness in her seminal book The New Jim Crow. With frank intentionality she left the proverbial door wide open for others. "Relatively little is said here about the unique experience of women, Latinos and immigrants in the criminal justice system, though these groups are particularly vulnerable to the worst abuses and suffer in ways that are important and distinct ... I hope other scholars and advocates pick up where the book leaves off and develop the critique more fully ..." For Latinos it's high time we pick up the mantle. It's time to make the invisible visible to all and expose the concomitant plight of Latinos under a broken and racialized criminal justice system. A national convening of Latino organizations and activists took place on November 18 to coordinate that collective response. Sponsored by LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and the Drug Policy Alliance the strategic conversation discussed the proposed reforms to policies that criminalize Latino communities, explore common ground to engage in this national crisis and add Latino voices to the forces of change.

Speakers from California, New York, Texas, Florida, Arizona and Washington, DC attened to share insights with over 40 Latino organization many of whom are members of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda. Another round of speakers from Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Uruguay were there to initiate an historic collaboration between global drug policy leaders in the hemisphere and Latino leaders in the United States.

The intersection of the tragic dangerousness of the failed War on Drugs in Central and South America with criminal justice and drug policy reform in the United States has never been clearer. It is only appropriate for domestic Latino leaders to listen to, and learn from, these voices of change especially as global drug policy is set to get international attention at a special session of the United Nations assembly in April 2016. And yet even within the country's borders Latinos and Latinas, especially Latino young men, see the worst manifestations of the criminal justice system every day in America. Its salience is only dwarfed by the way America treats young African-American men. That treatment is a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and its racist manifestations today.

The counterpart in the Latino community stems from racial dominance, conquest, imperialism and colonialism -- or what Juan Gonzalez terms the "harvest" of the U.S. Empire. But make no mistake about it -- both communities have suffered state-sponsored and state-ignored violence aimed at them for their mere presence in the country. Now as America slowly begins to question the policies that were officially inaugurated in President Nixon's War on Drugs and cemented in President Clinton's tough on crime playbook and as we rail against the American exceptionalism that results in us having 5 per cent of the world's population but 25 per cent of the world's prisoners, change is in the air. And unless Latino leaders force the question the narrative in favor of change will be missing an ñ. Such is the state of Latino voices in this debate. Sure, many Latinos who are in the streets fighting against excessive policing or monitoring the abuses of private jailers in immigration detention centers have had their fair share of ire when the names of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Ruben Garcia Villalpando and Jessie Hernandez - all unarmed fatal victims of police shootings which were video-recorded- barely registered in mainstream media coverage. Many Latino advocates were also livid when FBI Director James Comey said that the biggest data problem they have is the lack of data on shootings and killings committed by police. This from the agency that could force the hand of eleven states who now only report arrest and incarceration data in a black / white binary and thus have no idea how many Latinos fall within their systems. In 2015 no less!

The advocates were also incensed when Director Comey lamented the "Ferguson effect" on policing as if more transparency and accountability were somehow bad for the country. Given that the recordings of the deaths of both Eric Garner and Walter Scott were made and released by two courageous Latino witnesses you could understand why Latinos in the know were miffed. Then there's the decade old myth of criminality among Latino immigrants elevated recently by a certain billionaire, narcissistic Republican presidential candidate. That's the one that sets Latinos over the edge for they know first-hand that Latino immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born persons Latino and non-Latino alike.

Professor Ruben Rumbaut has been fighting that myth for years all with reliable data. His latest contribution shows that between 1990 and 2013 the undocumented immigrant population in the country went from 3.5 million to 11.2 million while the violent crime rate in the country declined by 48 percent. So much for that positive correlation. Advocates and activists all know this to be true. But mainstream America has yet to hear it. They barely understand how our drug policies wreak havoc on Latinos. How pretrial and bail adjudications are actually worse for Latinos in criminal court than either blacks or whites. How the 34,000 bed quota that the federal government promises to fill to private owners of immigration detention centers creates not only perverse law enforcement incentives but actually harms Latina women and children in detention. For the sake of the country's new found curiosity in criminal justice, drug policy and policing reform it is high time it begins to consider reform from the uniquely Latino experience that Michelle Alexander warned about as she took America by the lapels and added her incredible voice to the forces of change. It's time Latinos added theirs as well.