Los Que No Cuentan… Latino Lives Discounted

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Franklin Cruz

So far this month, Raul Saavedra-Vargas from Reno, Nevada was shot and killed by police as he drove a van into an area packed with people attending a festival.  Anthony Nuñez in San Jose, California was shot and killed by two officers, during an incident in which he had threatened suicide and then allegedly pointed his gun at police.

Melissa Ventura from Yuma, Arizona was shot to death by two deputies responding to a domestic violence call, after she allegedly attacked them with a knife.

Pedro Villanueva from Fullerton, California was cornered and killed after allegedly participating in an illegal street race and then driving toward a vehicle occupied by two undercover police officers.   Vinson Ramos from Bell, California was shot and killed after reportedly brandishing a knife and refusing to put it down.

Franklin Cruz

Franklin Cruz

In all five of these cases, there were a number of issues at play—ranging from mental illness and policies on shooting at moving vehicles, to the safety of police officers. But the one issue they share is that they have been largely ignored.

While the media and nation have been rightly heartbroken over the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, these five Latino deaths, which happened over the same time span of days, have remained all but invisible in the national media and consciousness.

In response to the deaths of Sterling and Castile this past week, President Barack Obama declared, “When people say Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter, it just means all lives matter, but right now the big concern is the fact that the data shows black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents. This isn’t a matter of us comparing the value of lives.”

Raising the deaths of Raul Saavedra-Vargas, Anthony Nuñez, Melissa Ventura, Pedro Villanueva, and Vinson Ramos is not an exercise in comparing the value of their lives to those of African Americans fatally shot during interactions with police.  Instead, the relative silence on their deaths is indicative of a larger problem in our criminal justice system: Latinos don’t count.

More to the point, Latinos are not counted, which quickly translates into they do not count.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program had not collected information about ethnicity (meaning no information about whether someone is Hispanic since 1987.  The most recent handbook on their site includes race categories but no way to indicate ethnicity.  The UCR did finally begin to include ethnicity data in 2013 after years of pressure, but states have not caught up.

States are inconsistent in how they collect data about Hispanics.  Notwithstanding significant differences in how different agencies in local criminal justice systems collect race data – self-reported or visual identification by the officer or justice professional – Hispanics are counted in some local criminal justice systems as a race, in some as an ethnicity, and in others, not at all.

Hispanics may fall under “Other” or they may fall unilaterally under “White” or be classified based on an individual’s determination of whether the person looks more “black” or “white” or if a person speaks Spanish or English.

The Washington Post counts 127 deaths of African Americans so far this year as a result of police shootings.  There have been 518 deaths total in 2016.  80 Hispanics have been among the police shooting deaths, we think.

These data inconsistencies are true not only for defendants and offenders, but they are true for victims.  At the state level, there may be categories for Hispanic, but with counties using inconsistent metrics, those data too are often unreliable.  The Sentencing Project in The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons (2016) reaffirms these data problems with respect to sentencing data and identifies Alabama (4.2% Hispanic in 2015 according to US Census), Maryland (9.5% Hispanic), Montana (3.6% Hispanic), and Vermont (1.8% Hispanic) as four states that do not collect or report data on Hispanics at all.

The issue here is not one unique to researchers working on their next great study.  It has real ramifications for Latinos at a time when data are used more and more to drive policy.

Organizations trying to trace disproportionality and disparities throughout the criminal justice system – not just at arrest or at sentencing but  at every step in between, such as pretrial release, amount of bail set, referral to diversion or alternative programs, etc. – are often stymied in their attempts, because the agencies within a single system may track race differently.  Law enforcement may report on Hispanic status, but that information may be completely absent in the court’s data system, and then it may be re-collected at intake into probation, jail, or prison.

How can we address the problems Hispanics (or people of other backgrounds) face in the criminal justice system, if we lack the data to reveal the full picture of how they experience the legal system?

In 2013, Lynda Garcia wrote for the American Civil Liberties Union a succinct description of the ripple effects of this problem (when discussing a recently published report on marijuana arrest):

“…the racial bias in marijuana arrest rates is likely even more pronounced than what we reported last week. In The War on Marijuana in Black and White, we found that Blacks are over 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession – a staggering racial disparity that exists nationwide. But consider this: most Latino arrests were likely counted as “white” arrests, meaning that the white arrest rate was artificially inflated. If Latinos also have a higher arrest rate than whites (which we suspect they often do), the disparity between Black and white arrest rates would likely have been even larger.”

The miscount of the Latino population in these data skew measures of over-representation in criminal justice for all racial groups, but they profoundly obscure the impact of structural biases on Latino communities.

As immigration policies have become more draconian nationally and within individual states, understanding the intersection of “Latino-ness” and justice-involvement, both as defendant and victim, has only grown.

Maritza Perez, Jessica González-Rojas, and Juan Cartagena addressed Why Latinos Should Invest in Sentencing Reform in The Huffington Post.  They spoke to the “…alarming trend is that Latinxs are unjustly targeted because of policies and practices that perpetuate their involvement in the criminal legal system and immigration system.”

For Latinos who are not US citizens, justice involvement means that they can pay for their crimes twice, as immigration and criminal consequences converge.

As Perez, González-Rojas, and Cartagena call for Latinos to mobilize around criminal justice as a Latino issue, the deaths of Sterling and Castile and the deaths of Villanueva, Saaverdra-Vargas, Nuñez, Ventura, and Ramos underscore the need of the many different groups of Latinos in the United States to demand to be counted and heard in the national criminal justice conversation and in the efforts to enhance equity for all.

Justice is fundamentally more than a black and white issue; it includes the full spectrum of diversity in between.  We talk about striving for justice that is colorblind.

I remind Hispanics – from Chicanos to Boricuas to Latinos and Latinxs and to Dominicans, Cubans, Central Americans, and South Americans – that Hispanics are not only miscounted and discounted but the breadth of diversity under the umbrella of Hispanic overlooked.

The colorblind see only black and white; they do not see all of the rest of us in between.

Editor’s Note: This is a slightly edited version of a column published in several other online outlets this week, including the Huffington Post, Medium and Kos.

Franklin Cruz is a senior manager and program director at a national, non-profit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice.  Prior to his current policy and technical assistance work, Franklin spent over a decade as a manager at a public defender office in Bronx, NY. He welcomes comments from readers.

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