The number of Latino youth held in jails and detention centers nationwide is underestimated, leading to misguided policies and a lack of resources to support that population, according to a report released Tuesday by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and Alianza for Youth Justice.

Most states collect data on race, though nearly 25% use only the categories of Black and white, ignoring Asian and indigenous peoples, for example, according to the report. Reporting on ethnicity that would capture data on Latino youth is inconsistent, despite federal law mandating a uniform approach. Its accuracy is also compromised by law enforcement officers who draw their own conclusions about race and ethnicity without asking youth, the report says.

“This long overdue report provides a human face to the compelling research findings of the discrepancies on how the 50 states and District of Columbia do and do not count our diverse population,” said Marcia Rincon-Gallardo, co-founder and director of Alianza for Youth Justice and one of the contributors to the report. “Indigenous, Afro-Latino, brown girls, boys and gender-expansive youth face racial and ethnic inequities, and their invisibility impacts their exit from these unjust systems.”

More than 48,000 minors are detained in American youth or criminal justice facilities daily, though rates of detention have declined dramatically over the last 25 years. Latino youth, who represent one-quarter of the U.S. population between the ages of 10-17, are 65% more likely to be held in youth facilities or detained in the youth justice system, according to the report.

The problem with coding Latino youth as white or “other” was pointed out in a widely read report in 2002, but the problem persists.

“It is essential that we count Latinx youth as Latinx and not let bureaucrats assume that they are white or other, so that we can have the proper data to show policy makers how mass incarceration is affecting the Latinx population specifically,” said policy aide and youth advocate Joanna Molina. “Counting Latinx youth as white is a way for our … government systems to ignore our youth and minimize the severity of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

The Latinx Data Gap in the Youth Justice System, which builds on those earlier findings, determined that 42% of states did not report racial or ethnic data for arrests, 30% failed to report such data on detention and 52% did not have racial or ethnic data for probation.

“Policymakers are unable to effectively advocate for reform” without this data, said Francisco Villarruel, one of the authors of the 2002 report and a contributor to the most recent findings. “We need consistent and accurate data about Latinx youth in justice systems across the country.”

Otherwise, advocates say, Latinos are left out of policy discussions about both the problem of overincarceration and its solutions, and are overlooked when funding is sought for rehabilitative programs.

“As our country undertakes a long overdue reckoning on race and justice, it is critical that Latinos be included in the conversation,” said Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative and one of the report’s co-authors. “Far too often we are overlooked, but to effectively address inequities in the justice system, especially the egregious disparities facing Black Americans, policymakers and advocates need accurate data on Latinx youth.”

Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Los Angeles, said the state has doubled its spending on incarceration since 2001 while keeping funding for intervention and rehabilitative programs flat, even as crime was falling year over year. He argued that the deck is stacked against Latino youth, who find any bad decisions they make exacerbated by the system.

“In our country, far too often, we are ready, willing and able to use our tax dollars for suppression purposes rather than rehabilitation,” Cardenas said during a news conference to announce the findings of the report. “On a certain side of town throughout the country, usually the minority side of town … we have probation officers who are assigned inside of public schools. That does not happen in the more affluent communities across America. When children need help, they get help. They get psychological help, they get support systems, they get nurtured, they are kept away from the criminal justice system.”

The congressman said collecting data was equally important in proving that Latinos are not the dangerous individuals they are sometimes portrayed to be by politicians or Hollywood filmmakers and television writers.

“Eight out of 10 Latino families do not have criminals in their family, they do not have people who have been criminalized by the system,” yet the system relies on stereotypes and treats Latinos as if they are violent and predisposed to commit crimes, Cardenas said.

California law recommends, but does not mandate, that counties gather data on race and ethnicity. Many states are stymied by the lack of funding for more data collection. Without detailed, accurate data, there is little chance of developing programs that best serve Latino and Black youth, said Adriana Bernal, another author of the report.

“The lack of comprehensive Latinx ethnic data jeopardizes the ability to build a responsive youth justice system that meets the needs of thousands of Latinos and Black youth who are incarcerated and under supervision,” said Bernal, a UCLA research and policy fellow. “Legislators and advocates cannot address racial and ethnic disparities, institute culturally appropriate care, including an effective COVID-19 response, without accurate data.”

These minors become invisible and unable to fight for resources that would help end over-incarceration, said Bernie Gomez, a system-impacted youth advocate at Alianza.

“It is crucial and necessary for policymakers and the broader public to understand that our Latinx youth are trapped in a web of exploitation in the juvenile injustice system. While we make up a high percentage of the incarcerated population, we are displaced in a cataloging system where we are made invisible,” Gomez said.

The full report can be found at

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