Doula customs_1060In 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 (Creative Commons License 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.


  1. Stephen Steinberg

    Among the factors that explain the vastly disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos in prison is racial targeting by police, especially for violations of drug laws. In New York City there have been 353,000 marijuana possession arrests between 1997 and 2006. 52% of those arrested were Blacks and 31% Latinos, despite the fact that among 12th graders, marijuana use is lower among Blacks and Latinos than among Whites. That’s not all. Simple possession of small amounts of marijuana is not a crime, but having marijuana open to public view is. Not only do police target minority neighborhoods, but when they stop and frisk young men, they often trick them to take out the marijuana, at which point they are cuffed and arrested.

    Obviously, these are not the people filling up the prisons. Most are released within 24 hours. But aside the humiliating and alienating experience, they are left with a police record that limits their employment and educational opportunities. The full report can be found at http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/nyregion/20080429_MARIJUANA.pdf

    One other point. Instead of tagging us as “a nation of cowards” for not talking across the racial divide, how much better it would have been had Attorney General Holder spoken out against mass incarceration, racial targeting, and the myriad ways in which the criminal justice consign minority youth to unconscionable years in prison. Now that would have taken some courage!

  2. Claire Renzetti Author

    You’re right, Stephen: The “war on drugs” has essentially been a war on racial and ethnic minorities and is responsible for the huge increases in incarceration in state prisons and local jails since the 1980s. There are two excellent national reports on this. One is by Ryan King for the Sentencing Project (www.sentencingproject.org): “Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America’s Cities,” published in May, 2008. The other is from Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org): “Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States,” also published in May 2008. I did a post on racismreview.com on these reports last summer. The Pew Hispanic Center report that I discuss in my most recent post, though, is focused on changes in the composition of the federal prison population. The federal system handles violations of immigration laws; most, although not all, drug violations are handled at the state and local levels.

  3. Stephen Steinberg

    All sage points, Claire. So let’s add this up: the arbitrary and unnecessary criminalization of drugs amounts to a war on minority youth, and the arbitrary and unnecessary criminalization of violations of immigration laws amounts to a war against Latino workers whose labor is needed and plundered. Is the purpose of the criminal justice system that Eric Holder heads to provide human bodies for the prison industrial complex? I am reliably told that every year, when the legislative session is winding down in Albany, legislators propose bills that increase sentences on various felonies, to assure a continuing influx of inmates into upstate facilities at a time when crime is on the wane. This adds up to a horrendous violation of human rights, as minority lives are squandered to satisfy the voratious needs of a criminal justice system that is laced with racism. Eric Holder wants to “talk about race”: let’s give him what he is asking for!

  4. Claire Renzetti Author

    One more issue of concern is the fact that the prison-industrial complex is a major employer in this country; in some communities, it is the single largest employer. Given the growing unemployment rate and other economic concerns of many communities, the pressure to assure a continuous influx of inmates is not likely to abate.

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