Latinx Youth Undercounted, Ignored in Juvenile Justice System: Report

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Juvenile Detention. Photo by circulating, via Flickr

Latino youth, the largest U.S. ethnic minority group, “remain invisible” because of the insufficient juvenile justice data, a report released Tuesday from the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and Alianza for Youth Justice finds.

Today, Latinx youth make up 25 percent — or 8.3 million —  of the U.S. youth population between the ages of 10 to 17. In an incarceration setting, over 48,000 youth are detained in juvenile or adult criminal justice facilities on any given day. 

But, of those that are incarcerated, the racial and ethnic makeup of that youth is largely unknown due to the fact that law enforcement and jail ethnicity data isn’t being collected, and even if it is, it’s incredibly inconsistent “despite federal law mandating a uniform approach,” the researchers found, calling the missing data “alarming.”

Not only is it inconsistent, but in some cases, law enforcement officers have been drawing their own conclusions about the youth’s race and ethnicity, without even asking the youth themselves, the UCLA and Alianza report found. 

“This long overdue report provides a human face to the compelling research findings of the discrepancies on how the 50 states and District of Columbia do and do not count our diverse population,” said Marcia Rincon-Gallardo, co-founder and director of Alianza for Youth Justice and one of the contributors to the report.

“Indigenous, Afro-Latino, brown girls, boys and gender-expansive youth face racial and ethnic inequities, and their invisibility impacts their exit from these unjust systems.”

The Latinx Data Gap in the Youth Justice System determined that 42 percent of states did not report racial or ethnic data for arrests, 30 percent failed to report such data on detention, and 52 percent did not have racial or ethnic data for probation whatsoever.

Overall, we know that the U.S. Latinx youth are overrepresented in the youth justice system, but they’re undercounted, the report found. 

To get to their findings, the researchers looked at publicly available data over the past 5 years from all 50 states, assessing individual state statutes, state-level youth justice agencies receive mandated youth justice data from county institutions, and data from agencies at varying levels.

‘They Didn’t Ask Me’

The researchers also made a grim discovery: many of the juveniles weren’t allowed to fill out their own ethnic data while being booked, proving that whatever ethnic and racial data they have is incorrect from the start. 

Antonio, a young man from Los Angeles, told the researchers when he was brought to jail, “They just filled out all the stuff for me without asking me any of the questions.”

Raymond from Salinas, California told researchers the same thing. He recounted, “They didn’t ask me very much at all. They just asked for my name, my date of birth, and that was it.” 

“They told me they would continue at a later time which never happened,” Raymond concluded. 

This further proves that there’s a problem with the way racial and ethnic data is collected in the juvenile justice system, because by not accurately depicting who is behind bars, there’s no to know where to allocate proper resources and funding for programs outside of the system, the authors explain. 

Put simply, if you can’t identify the communities that need the help the most, you can’t begin to help them, the researchers write. 

“The lack of comprehensive Latinx ethnic data jeopardizes the ability to build a responsive youth justice system that meets the needs of thousands of Latinos and Black youth who are incarcerated and under supervision,” said Adriana Bernal, a UCLA researcher and policy fellow. 

“Legislators and advocates cannot address racial and ethnic disparities, institute culturally appropriate care, including an effective COVID-19 response, without accurate data.”

Moreover, when states and correctional facilities exclusively collect racial data, rather than both racial and ethnic data, they inadvertently neglect the Latinx population, considering those individuals will likely fall into white or Black categories simply based on appearance. 

However, many Latinxs, if given the opportunity, would self-identify as mixed race, Afro-Latinos, or Indigenous, the report found.

This, again, shows that the data isn’t providing researchers, advocates, and lawmakers alike with the full picture. 


Based on the researcher’s findings, they first recommend that the federal government and Department of Justice work together to create a “uniformed racial and ethnic data collection strategy … to ensure consistency when reporting on all points of contact.”

They also suggest that there should be required publicly available state-wide reporting on race and ethnicity on every level in the juvenile justice system. 

Finally, they recommend that the youth moving through the system must have the explicit right to self identify their racial and ethnic breakdown for reports. 

The researchers acknowledge that this work must be done by activists, advocates, researchers, policymakers, and the federal government together or the true picture of who in America’s youth is behind bars won’t be accurately known.

“As our country undertakes a long overdue reckoning on race and justice, it is critical that Latinos be included in the conversation,” concluded Sonja Diaz, Founding Director of the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative

“Far too often we are overlooked, but to effectively address inequities in the justice system, especially the egregious disparities facing Black Americans, policymakers and advocates need accurate data on Latinx youth.” 

The full report can be accessed here. 

This summary was prepared by TCR staffer Andrea Cipriano.

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