The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 17, 2016

We don’t know how many Latinos are affected by the criminal justice system

October 17, 2016

If you’re not counted, you don’t count. In this era of metrics and analytics, most people understand the importance of accurate statistics on race and policing. Though public data on race in the criminal justice system is far from complete, most states at least report the number of white and black/African American people in their prison and arrest records—numbers that play a key role in informing today’s movements, like Black Lives Matter.

When it comes to ethnicity, though, there are many holes.

Latinos are a fast-growing portion of both the US population (nearly one in five Americans are Latino) and the correctional population, but gaps in states’ criminal justice system data mean that we don’t know how many Latinos are in prison, on probation, or arrested.

Criminal justice system data are used to develop policies that affect sentencing, prison and jail programming, and reentry services. If we don’t have an accurate picture of who is in our justice systems, we cannot make good policy.

A state’s failure to count ethnicity in addition to race can even mask racial disparities. A state that only counts people as “black” or “white” would likely label most of their Latino prison population as “white.” Artificially inflating the number of “white” people in prison would make white/black disparities appear less extreme than they actually are. So, comprehensive data around ethnicity doesn’t just affect Latinos.

Just how much data do we have, and how much is missing? We tracked all the race and ethnicity information we could find for each state across six categories: prison population; prison population by offense; arrest; probation; parole; and compliance with sentencing guidelines. Our goal was to establish what the “gold standard” might look like for publicly reporting information on race and ethnicity.

Of these categories, prison population data provide the most complete picture on ethnicity across all states. Still, only 75 percent of states publicly report prison population statistics on race and ethnicity that include a “Hispanic” or “Latino” category. And only 67 percent of states publish these data regularly.

Of the states that do count Latinos in their prison population, only North Carolina reports these data at our highest standard: with race and ethnicity counted as separate but overlapping groups (e.g., non-Hispanic white and Hispanic white).

Less than 30 percent of states publicly report a “Hispanic” or “Latino” category for arrest statistics, and just over 20 percent publish these data regularly. Only Vermont and New Hampshire report arrest data with race and ethnicity as unique but combined categories.

Even when looking only at states with large Latino populations—the states that need these data the most—the figures are still sorely lacking. For example, Florida has the third-largest Latino population of any state, but does not publicly report any data on Latinos in arrests, prison, probation, or parole.

As National Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, we need to elevate the importance of being counted. Our forthcoming report and data visualization will illuminate the breadth of missing data around race and ethnicity, and the value of achieving a higher standard for reporting. As we found in a recent report on police data, accurate, complete, and publicly available data are essential to an informed discussion about disparities. 

People incarcerated at the Kern County Sheriff's Office Lerdo Detention Facility in Bakersfield walk through the yard on August 8, 2014. Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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