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Why it’s impossible to measure how the criminal justice system treats Latinos in the US

There’s a big gap in criminal justice data when it comes to Latinos. That’s a problem.

If you want to find out how many Latino people are arrested in the US every year, you’re out of luck: 40 of 50 states publicly report race in their arrest records, but 38 states haven’t regularly or recently included Latinos in their race or ethnicity arrest data. And that makes it impossible to fully tell how many Latino people are arrested in most states on an annual basis.

That finding comes from a new analysis by the Urban Institute, which looked at how and if states recently and regularly reported criminal justice data online.

The lack of data for Latinos doesn’t stop with arrests: The report found that 16 states haven’t regularly or recently reported Latino people under race or ethnicity in their prison data, 34 haven’t in their parole data, and 35 haven’t in their probation data.

“Only one state — Alaska — consistently included data on Latinos in regularly and recently released reports on arrests and prison, probation, and parole populations,” the report found. “Although it is possible that more states collected these data routinely, we only considered data that states made publicly accessible.”

What’s more, states with larger Latino populations don’t seem to provide better data: “Seventy-five percent of Latinos in the United States live in just 10 states. Many of these states have significant gaps in reported ethnicity data despite their large Latino populations. California, Florida, and New Mexico, for example, all reported ethnicity data in fewer categories than the average state.” New Mexico in particular doesn’t publicly report any prison, arrest, probation, or parole data for Latino people.

Why is the gap in data a problem? The Urban Institute explained: “Evidence shows that our criminal justice system has significant racial disparities. But without comprehensive data, policymakers, community members, and advocates cannot know how mass incarceration affects Latinos specifically and ethnic disparities cannot be accurately tracked.”

This is something I’ve run into when reporting on various criminal justice issues. For example, data on police shootings suggests that Latino people are actually less likely to be shot and killed by police relative to their population levels. But when you look deeper into the data, it turns out that many states — if they report police shooting data at all — often report Latino victims as white or, in fewer cases, black. This makes it impossible to really know if there is a racial disparity in police shootings for Latino populations.

The Urban Institute, in cooperation with the Drug Policy Alliance and the LatinoJustice PRLDEF, called for states to simply collect this data when people are processed through the system. Juan Cartagena, president of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, put it bluntly on a phone conference: “This is not rocket science.”

For the full interactive data, check out the Urban Institute’s feature.

Watch: Why recording the police is so important

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