Guilty of Being Brown

Dónde está la justicia? "Where is the justice?"

It's the question that frames the first-ever national report on the prevalence of Latino youth in the juvenile justice system, "A Call to Action on Behalf of Latino and Latina Youth in the U.S. Justice System," authored by Michigan State University professors Francisco Villarruel and Nancy Walker.

The exhaustive study, which researched juvenile justice systems in 14 states, revealed that Latinos under the age of 18 are being detained, sentenced and incarcerated at higher rates -- and for longer periods of time -- than their Anglo counterparts.

Referring to "dramatic and alarming" inequities, Villarruel and Walker were joined last month at a Washington, D.C. press conference attended by civil rights organizations, community activists and the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative, the national juvenile justice organization that commissioned the report.

Nearly every state surveyed, according to the authors, is neglecting to provide adequate bilingual and culturally competent services to young Latinos who end up in immigration detention, juvenile facilities, jail or prison.

In addition, Villaruel and Walker discovered that many states have flawed, problematic, or nonexistent methods for collecting data on the ethnicity of juvenile offenders, particularly where Latinos are concerned.

"We were told, repeatedly, that state personnel have insufficient resources and time to collect data," explains Walker. "We were also told of the problem of not having a uniform standard for what defines Latino and Hispanic."

In many states, no "race" box even exists for "Latino" or "Hispanic." When given a choice only of white, black or Asian, the report reveled that 95 percent of Latinos will check "white," further skewing existing data on Latino juvenile offenders and adult prisoners alike.

"Although Latino youth are incarcerated in juvenile facilities throughout the country, the absence of separate data makes them an invisible minority for the purposes of planning and policy," explains Mark Soler, coordinator of Building Blocks for Youth.

The report also highlights the fact that for youth charged with drug offenses, the average incarceration rate for Latino youth is now 13 times the rate of Anglo youth.

"The unfair treatment of Latino and Latina youth in the juvenile justice system needs to end," says Raul Yzaquirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights organization in the U.S. "Our youth are being denied equal opportunities and representation as a result of inadequate bilingual services and culturally insensitive environments."

Nationwide, Latino teens charged with violent offenses are five times more likely to be incarcerated as white teens similarly charged. And the problem only appears to be getting worse: Between 1983 and 1991, the percentage of Latino youth in public detention facilities increased by 84 percent compared with an 8 percent increase for Anglo youth.

"We're not talking about a small number of people," says Marisa Demeo, regional counsel for MALDEF in Washington, D.C. "Latinos are now the nation's largest minority under the age of 18, and the largest minority in the public school system."

Latinos, who currently comprise 12.5 percent of the national population, are growing faster than any other ethnic group in the U.S. By 2050, one in four Americans will be of Latino heritage, over 35 percent of whom will be under the age of 18.

"The overall well-being of this country will depend on how we treat this group," adds Demeo. "If this unequal treatment isn't dealt with early on, young Latinos will be set on a destructive path for themselves and the communities where they live."

Substantial Latino communities -- whether Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan or Guatemalan -- can now be found across the country, even in states like Arkansas, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. Still, more than three-quarters of Latinos are concentrated in the western or southwestern United States, including states like New Mexico.

In these parts of the country, with "majority-minority" representation and a cultural presence that shapes the very essence of the West and Southwest, do young Latinos actually fare better in the juvenile justice system? Not so, according to the report's findings.

In Los Angeles, for instance, the researchers found that Latino youth were being arrested at 2.3 times the rate of Anglo youth between 1996-1998, and imprisoned at 7.3 times the rate of Anglo youth in that same time span.

High poverty and drop-out rates -- and the heavy presence of gangs in many low-income Latino neighborhoods across Los Angeles County -- have conspired to create a genuine juvenile "underclass" that may be more likely to commit petty crimes and drug-related offenses. But the socioeconomic situation facing Latino youth in Los Angeles has been harshly compounded by what can fairly be assessed as abusive and illegal law enforcement practices.

Take the case of George Alfaro, a 22-year-old who grew up in L.A.'s Rampart neighborhood. From a young age, as Alfaro recalls, the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.) would target young, poor and marginally involved gang members like himself -- and subject them to both verbal and physical abuse.

"It came to a point where they would take our clothes off, out there on the streets, and let us walk home in our boxers through rival gang territory," he explains. "They wouldn't care what happened to us. After a while, we weren't scared of rival gangs anymore. We were more scared of the L.A.P.D."

Alfaro had just turned 17 when he was beaten so badly by Rampart officers that he was hospitalized for his injuries. When he went to file a complaint about the treatment he had received at the hands of neighborhood officers, Alfaro recounts that a police sergeant at the Rampart Division told him to shut up "and be a man."

Alfaro says the sergeant also told him: "If you keep saying all of this, we're going to arrest all of your homeboys."

Alfaro had been pegged as a troublemaker, and Rampart police never left him alone. After being busted for selling cocaine on the street, Alfaro was sentenced to two years in state prison.

And then, with nine months left to go on his sentence, Alfaro woke up one morning to discover that he was being let out of prison. He had no idea why, or how, he had won an early release until one month later, when he learned that his case had been overturned because of one of the biggest police scandals in Los Angeles history.

The "Rampart Scandal" was brought to light when criminal-officer-turned-whistle-blower Rafael Perez charged that dozens of his fellow officers were regularly involved in making false arrests, stealing and dealing drugs, giving perjured testimony, and framing, beating and killing innocent people.

Don't Let the Moments Disappear

"I thank God that I'm still alive," says Alfaro, who is now an organizer with the Los Angeles-based Homies Unidos. "I'm one of the guys that made it through."

Even in heavily Latino-populated states like New Mexico, findings from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention have revealed that under-18 Latino youth --who represent 46 percent of the total youth population --made up nearly 64 percent of boys and girls in juvenile detention.

"Those numbers don't surprise me at all," says Fernando Abeyta, 22, Community Organizer for the Albuquerque-based Southwest Organizing Project.

Throughout Albuquerque, says Abeyta, police are harassing, detaining and arresting young Latinos with alarming regularity. Many of these teens are introduced to the juvenile justice system after committing the "crime" of hanging out in a group of friends at local malls (the charge of loitering is easily slapped on juveniles in Albuquerque), or being cited for cruising in their cars on the weekends.

"They are picking people out ... by the color of their skin and what they wear," Abeyta insists. "White kids drag-race around here all the time, breaking the laws, but [the police] target our neighborhoods for slow driving instead."

In New Mexico, youth who end up entangled in the juvenile justice system face the additional possibility of imprisonment in an adult facility. As a result of changes in 1993 to the state's Children's Code, the state became the first in the nation to create a new class of "youthful offenders" and "serious youthful offenders." Juvenile court judges now have the ability to choose from a wide range of punishments for offenders, including incarceration in the adult state prison system.

In 1996, the code was amended to rule that "youthful offenders" could be as young as 14 years of age, while "serious youthful offenders" could be as young as 15. (Sentences meted out to this group of "superpredators" can technically extend to life in prison.)

Albuquerque's Institute for Social Research found in 1996 that judges were handing out sentences that averaged 36 and six years, respectively, for "serious youthful offenders" and "youthful offenders." According to the profile of the 42 offenders in adult prison at the time of the study, most of them were "Hispanic males who were not in school at the time of their arrest."

From the perspective of civil rights organizations like MALDEF, the overrepresentation of Latinos in the juvenile justice system demands a state-by-state response -- and a serious national commitment -- to reversing the multifaceted problem of racial disparities in arrests and sentencing.

"We need to look at alternatives to incarceration and remove discrimination from the criminal justice system," Demeo says. "The youth of today are the ones we need to pay attention to ... it's no exaggeration to say that the future of this country is dependent on the success of the Latino community."

Silja J.A. Talvi is a freelance journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is also co-editor of LiP Magazine, and can be reached at

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