Friday, February 20, 2009

Study Shows Sharp Rise in Latino Federal Convicts

Key question: Could this mean that immigration is getting criminalized or does this reflect changing demographics?


February 19, 2009
Study Shows Sharp Rise in Latino Federal Convicts

LOS ANGELES - The sharp growth in illegal immigration and increased
enforcement of immigration laws have dramatically altered the ethnic
composition of offenders sentenced in federal courts. In 2007, Latinos
accounted for 40 percent of all those convicted of federal crimes and
one third of all federal prison inmates, according to a new study by
the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank.

Nearly half of all Latino offenders, or about 48 percent, were
convicted of immigration crimes. Drug offenses were the second-most
prevalent charge among Latino federal convicts, according to the
report, which was made public on Wednesday.

As the annual number of federal offender s more than doubled between
1991 and 2007, the number of Latino offenders sentenced in a given
year nearly quadrupled, growing to 29,281 from 7,924. Latino convicts
now represent the largest ethnic population in the federal prison
system, although they make up only 13 percent of the United States

Of Latino federal offenders, 72 percent are not United States citizens
and most were sentenced in courts from one of five states bordering
Mexico. Undocumented federal prisoners are usually deported to their
home countries after serving their sentences.

"The immigration system has essentially become criminalized at a huge
cost to the criminal justice system, to courts, to judges, to prisons,
and prosecutors, " said Lucas Guttentag, a lawyer for the American
Civil Liberties Union. "And the government has diverted the resources
of the criminal justice system from violent crimes, financial
skullduggery and other areas that have been the traditional area of
the Justice Department."

Last month The New York Times reported that federal immigration
prosecutions have increased over the last five years, doubling in the
last fiscal year to reach more than 70,000 cases. Meanwhile other
categories of federal prosecutions including gun trafficking, public
corruption, organized crime and white-collar crime have declined over
the past five years.

The federal justice system accounts for 200,000 or 8.6 percent of the
total 2.3 million inmates in federal and state prisons and city and
county jails. Nineteen percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of
jail inmates were Latinos. African-Americans make up 39 percent of
state prisoners and jail inmates while representing about 12 percent
of the total national population.

Deborah Williams, an assistant federal defender in Phoenix, sai d that
the large number of Latinos in the federal system, particularly those
who are not citizens and have limited English proficiency, have
dramatically changed federal prison culture.

"I have Anglo and Native American clients who tell me about being the
only non-Spanish speaker in their pod," Ms. Williams said. "Ten years
ago, it just wasn't that way. Everything is changing in there,
including the language, the television shows they watch and a lot of
times the guards don't speak the language. How do you safely guard
people who may not understand your orders?"

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, Tracy Billingsley, declined
immediate comment on the Pew report.

"It's hard to understand whether we're seeing a policy change or just
a growth in the total number of immigrants coming to this country,"
said Mark Hugo Lopez, a co-author of the study, who relied on United
States Sentencing Commission statistics. The number of undocumented
immigrants in the U.S. increased from 3.9 million in 1992 to 11.9
million in 2008.

Under federal anti-illegal immigration programs like Operation
Gatekeeper, which hired thousands of immigration enforcement officials
along the southwest border, and Operation Streamline, which instituted
a "zero tolerance policy" for illegal border crossings in the same
region, immigration crimes have skyrocketed.

The large number of immigration crimes and low-level drug offenses
account for the relatively light sentences that Latinos typically
receive - about 46 months compared with 62 months for white inmates
and 91 months for African-American prisoners.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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