February 18, 2009
By: Solomon Moore
Latino convicts now represent the largest ethnic population in the federal prison system, accounting for 40 percent of those convicted of federal crimes, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research organization.
Latinos made up only 13 percent of the United States adult population in 2007, but they accounted for one third of federal prison inmates that year, a result the study attributed to the sharp rise in illegal immigration and tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
Nearly half of Latino offenders, or about 48 percent, were convicted of immigration crimes, while drug offenses were the second-most-prevalent charge, according to the report.
As the annual number of federal offenders more than doubled from 1991 to 2007, the number of Latino offenders sentenced in a given year nearly quadrupled, to 29,281 from 7,924.
Of Latino federal offenders, 72 percent are not United States citizens and most were sentenced in courts from one of the four states that border Mexico. Federal prisoners who are illegal immigrants 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 had increased over the last five years, doubling in the last fiscal year to more than 70,000 cases. Meanwhile, other categories of federal prosecutions, including gun trafficking, public corruption, organized crime and white-collar crime, declined over the same period.
The federal justice system accounts for 200,000, or 8.6 percent, of the 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, the Pew study found. African-Americans, who make up about 12 percent of the national population, make up 39 percent of state prisoners and jail inmates.
Deborah Williams, an assistant federal defender in Phoenix, said that the large number of Latinos in the federal system, particularly those who are not citizens and have limited English proficiency, had sharply 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 federal Bureau of Prisons, Tracy Billingsley, declined immediate comment on the Pew report.
Mark Hugo Lopez, a co-author of the study, which relied on United States Sentencing Commission statistics, said, “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.”
The number of illegal immigrants in the country increased to 11.9 million last year, from 3.9 million in 1992.
Under federal programs like Operation Gatekeeper, which hired thousands of immigration enforcement officials along the Mexican 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, according to the study.
The hearing for José Sánchez on Wednesday in Los Angeles was typical. Having been convicted of illegal re-entry, Mr. Sánchez, 37, who has prior convictions for assault and drug possession, pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of 46 months.
The hearing took less than 10 minutes. Mr. Sánchez, who has a wife and three children in the area, asked to be assigned to a prison nearby. He is likely to be deported to Mexico after serving his sentence.