Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Pretrial Detainment, Sentencing, and Incarceration

Do racial and ethnic minorities receive the same treatment as whites in the criminal justice system? Recent studies analyzing the effects of race, ethnicity, and national origin have found that American Latinos and undocumented Latinos are more likely to be denied bail, required to pay bail, and required to pay a higher bail to gain release than whites. During the sentencing phase, some studies suggest that Latinos are likely to receive harsher prison sentences.

Researchers have attempted to identify and measure such disparities for more than half a century, and the research findings have in turn prompted policy debates that remain contentious and unresolved to this day. The growth of the Latino population has added several dimensions of complexity to the issue. Now it is important to understand the scope of disparities among minorities—notably blacks and Latinos—as well as between minorities and whites. Moreover, the foreign-born Latino population, with a sizable share of unauthorized migrants, presents its own distinctive interactions with the criminal justice system. In the past 20 years, data collectors have begun to separate Latinos from the white variable, allowing for more nuanced studies to be undertaken.

Source: David Sanders, The New York Times

Latinos and the Criminal Justice System

According to numbers released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 1,158 Latino men in prison for every 100,000 Latinos in the United States—2.5 times the rate for white men (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013). This does not include those in county jails or who have yet to be sentenced. In California, seven of ten prisoners were Latino or black: Latinos made up 41 percent of those in prison, blacks 29 percent, and whites 23 percent (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [CDCR], 2013). Figure 1 further illustrates these disparities by showing rates of incarceration, which take account of differences in the sizes of the population groups. For every 100,000 adult white males in California, 671 adult white males were incarcerated in a California institution in 2010. Meanwhile, black and Latino adult males were incarcerated at a rate of 5,525 and 1,146 per 100,000, respectively (Grattet & Hayes, 2013).

Source: Grattet, R., & Hayes, J. (2013). California’s Changing Prison Population. Public Policy Institute of California.

In order to explore the racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute examined a variety of data and research publications. No single study provides a full panorama of Latino views on these matters, and so this publication is meant to serve as a resource that compiles information and directs the reader to some of the most important sources of data and analysis. The three articles below summarize key findings on disparities in pretrial detainment, sentencing, and recidivism and reincarceration. At the bottom of this page, five breakout pieces highlight and further analyze some noteworthy information from the inquiry.

Research Limitations

Much of the research referenced in this site controlled for legal and extra-legal variables associated with the risk of pretrial incarceration, sentencing, and recidivism. However, researchers have repeatedly called for the refinement of the available data and more research into the disparities faced by Latinos in the criminal justice system. A significant limitation arises from a lack of differentiation between Hispanics and whites, as well as among subgroups of the Hispanic population by national origins or immigration status. Moreover, much of the data collected for these studies was from the 1990s or early 2000s. More recent and more detailed data would help researchers continue to explore the relationship between race and ethnicity and pretrial incarceration, sentencing, and recidivism.

Works Cited

Latinos and the Criminal Justice System, is a set of digital publications produced by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at USC and supported by Californians for Safety and Justice.

Lead Authors: Bri Gauger, Master of Planning; Katelyn Leenhouts, Master of Public Policy; Jennifer Moore, Master of Public Policy

Editorial Manager: Anna Fischer, Program Coordinator, Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, anna.fischer [at]

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