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Photo by Hajran Pambudi on Unsplash

Photo by Hajran Pambudi on Unsplash

With a 2020 census count hobbled by politics and the coronavirus, academics and activists for Latinx youth in the criminal justice system are calling for a more accurate reflection of their numbers and better access to prevention services.

According to a report released Tuesday by the Alianza for Youth Justice and the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, because the nation lacks a uniform way to track race and ethnicity, Latinx youth are often counted by local juvenile justice systems as either “white,” “Black” or “other.” Those inaccuracies, the authors say, obscure their true profile and hamstring efforts to reach them before the crimes they may have committed come to define them.

The nation lacks a uniform way to track race and ethnicity, Latinx youth are often counted by local juvenile justice systems as either “white,” “Black” or “other.”

“Counting Latinx youth as white is a way for our different government systems to ignore our youth and minimize the severities in our criminal justice system,” said Joanna Molina, a young woman formerly incarcerated in Santa Clara County who helped release the report on a webinar Tuesday.

The “The Latinx Data Gap” report found that many states fail to collect consistent racial and ethnic data for three critical points in the juvenile justice system: arrest, incarceration in juvenile detention facilities and probation supervision. It highlights that failure as “the largest ethnic minority group that remains invisible.”

The report found only 48% percent of states gather racial or ethnic information for young people on probation. Illinois, a state with a 17% Latinx population, only collects data for young people in lockup, while Georgia – where Latinx constitute 10% of the state’s residents – does not collect any data on race or ethnicity at any stage in the process.

In a 50-state survey, researchers found that state-level agencies in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and New Jersey alternated between ethnicity and race in their data reports, painting an inadequate picture of how many Latinx youth are in the justice system.

Confusion about whether to count Latinx in racial categories like Black or white, or by ethnicity, or a combination of the two, has been a thorny issue in America for decades. In 1980, the oU.S. Census began using the term Hispanic as a way to identify Latinx people, though the term leaves out non-Spanish speaking people with ties to Latin America, as well as indigenous people. In recent years, Latinx people have self-identified using several different terms, and thus have often been included in a variety of other racial categories.

Today, Latinx youngsters ages 10 to 17 represent 25% of the nation’s youth population, a number that has grown dramatically over the past 30 years. When these youth come into contact with the justice system, along with other youth of color, they face harsher consequences than their white peers. According to a 2017 Sentencing Project brief, Latinx youth are an astounding 65% more likely to be incarcerated than white youth.

But without better data, advocates fear that Latinx youth will miss out on funding, particularly for culturally appropriate programs designed to decrease their involvement in the justice system.

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“With the inaccurate assessment about the extent to which Latinx are involved with the system, we cannot hope to develop a comprehensive solution for the needs of these youth, their families and our communities,” said Sonja Diaz, one of the data report’s authors.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D) said he remains concerned that a lack of good data can affect decision-making by elected officials. When funding for data collection is slashed, leaders are encouraged “to fly by the seat of their pants and just go by assumptions,” the California congressman said during Tuesday’s webinar, and “bad things happen.” Cárdenas said those include the proliferation of negative stereotypes about Latinx people as well as more punitive police responses aimed at youth.

At the national level, the federal government has boosted requirements for racial and ethnic data collection from states through the 2018 reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

Several states are no longer participating in the JJDPA, however, because of additional requirements and dwindling funds, according to Marcia Rincon-Gallardo of the Alianza for Youth Justice.

“We know that there are less and less incentives for states to collect data, making it worse for the invisibility of Latino youth,” she said.

Rincon-Gallardo and other report authors are calling on Congress to require the Department of Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to develop a consistent racial and ethnic data collection system, following U.S. Census Bureau guidelines. They also recommend having youth in the justice system identify their own race and ethnicity rather than such information being selected by justice system staff.


Molina, who now works for Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese as a policy aide, said it has taken too long for juvenile justice systems to acknowledge the unique experiences and barriers faced by Latinx youth.

“Together we need to ensure that these systems shift from taking a punitive approach when dealing with our Latinx youth and understand the trauma and adversity these youth experience that bring them into the system,” she said.

Jeremy Loudenback

Imprint News

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.