In a post in March, I discussed a report by the Pew Center on the States documenting the dramatic increase in the number of citizens incarcerated in the United States over the past three decades, making this country’s incarceration rate the highest in the world ( photo credit: hoyasmeg). The vast majority of those incarcerated (91.4%) are being held in state prisons and local jails for nonviolent offenses, and young black men and women are disproportionately represented among the prison and jail populations. This week the Pew Hispanic Center released a new report, “A Rising Share: Hispanics and Federal Crime,” showing that the racial and ethnic composition of the federal prison population has significantly changed since 1991, with Latinos now making up the majority of sentenced federal offenders and about one-third (31%) of the federal prison population.
According to the Pew report, 40% of sentenced federal offenders in 2007 were Latino, even though they make up only 13% of the U.S. adult population. Their representation among adults sentenced in federal courts nearly doubled since 1991 when they were 24% of offenders sentenced in federal courts, making them the single largest racial/ethnic group among sentenced federal offenders in 2007. The increase in Latino federal offenders accounted for more than half (54%) of the overall increase in federal offenders from 1991 to 2007.
Who are these people and what crimes have they committed? Data in the Pew report show that more than 72% of Latinos sentenced in federal courts in 2007 were not U.S. citizens. The percentage of Latino federal offenders who were not U.S. citizens rose from 61% in 1991 to 72% in 2007. The majority of Latino federal offenders in 2007 were convicted of immigration offenses (48%), and of these, about 75% were convicted of entering the United States illegally or residing in the U.S. without legal authorization. But of Latino federal offenders who were not U.S. citizens, 61% were convicted of immigration offenses, and of these, 81% were convicted of entering the United States illegally or residing in the U.S. without legal authorization. Indeed, the Pew report concludes that an increase in undocumented immigration coupled with an intensified focus on strict enforcement of immigration laws has “changed the citizenship profile of federal offenders,” (p. 1), leading truthdig.com to label the period 1991-2007 the “age of crimmigration.”
The Pew analysis shows that Latinos sentenced in federal courts were more likely than non-Latino offenders to be sentenced to prison (96% and 82%, respectively), and Latinos who were not U.S. citizens were more likely than Latinos who were citizens to be sentenced to prison (98% and 90%, respectively). But Latinos receive significantly shorter sentences than non-Latinos, on average 46 months compared with 62 months for whites and 91 months for blacks. And Latinos who are not U.S. citizens receive on average shorter prison sentences than Latinos who are citizens (40 months and 61 months, respectively). These shorter sentences are indicative of the non-serious nature of immigration offenses, which raises the questions of whether the criminalization of undocumented immigration is the best strategy for addressing the problem and the best use of federal criminal justice resources. At this point, it remains uncertain how long the “age of crimmigration” will continue.