Why Latinos Should Invest in Sentencing Reform

Juan Cartagena

Partisan gridlock has halted many important policies from becoming realities. One of the promising policies, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, is currently stalled in the Senate. If enacted, the legislation will have a colossal effect on Latinxs. Once incarcerated, Latinxs face limited economic opportunity, family trauma, turmoil, and deportation — consequences that do not in any way reflect reasonable punishment for the often minor infractions that occur.

Rita Becerra is one of those Latinxs. Rita, who was a single mother of two children and a new grandmother in 1994, was arrested and sentenced to 27 years behind bars for drug charges stemming from her live-in boyfriend’s involvement in the drug trade. Prior to that, Rita had never even had a traffic ticket. Although Rita had never touched any drugs or delivered them, she was charged with conspiracy with intent to distribute. Rita’s boyfriend was able to reduce his sentence to 9 years because he provided details about criminal activities to the prosecution. Yet, Rita could not plea bargain because the only information she knew of concerned her boyfriend’s illegal enterprises and the prosecution already had that knowledge.

This dilemma, where those most involved with a crime possess the lion’s share of information and can bargain for time off while those who may have little involvement — and thus little knowledge of crimes — receive a full sentence, is a frustratingly common occurrence. Rita’s story is as tragic and unjust as it is commonplace. Women are the fastest growing group of prisoners, boasting an incarceration rate almost double that of men leaving more than one million women behind bars.

Another alarming trend is that Latinxs are unjustly targeted because of policies and practices that perpetuate their involvement in the criminal legal system and immigration system. Consequently, Latinxs are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites and are over-represented in state prisons in 31 of the 50 U.S. states. They are also overrepresented in the federal system, where Latinxs—who are 17.4 percent of the U.S. population—make up 33.8 percent of the incarcerated population in federal prisons. Indeed, today, 1 in every 6 Latino men and 1 in every 45 Latina women can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. As a result, 1 in 28 Latinx children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent compared to 1 in 57 white children. Research shows that children who grow up with an incarcerated parent are more likely to go to prison themselves, in addition to suffering from a host of long-term effects and disabilities like attention deficits, mental illness, and physical health issues such as obesity, trauma, depression, and anxiety.

The picture is bleaker for Latinxs with multiple identities who face further criminalization, such as Latinxs with disabilities, LGBTQ Latinxs — especially trans and gender non-conforming Latinxs, and Latinxs who are not U.S. citizens. For instance, non-citizens who serve time in jail or prison for a criminal violation run the risk of deportation upon release according to federal law. Thus, people who are not U.S. citizens — people like Rita — are expected to pay for their crime twice.

Rita emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 12. She was a green card holder at the time of her conviction. Still, when her sentence ends in November 2017, it is likely that Rita will be deported to a country she left more than 50 years ago. Legal implications for non-citizens who are caught engaging in even minor criminal activity are so severe that a new framework dubbed the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline has emerged to describe the criminal consequences of pushing non-citizen youth, most of whom are Latinx, out of school and into the criminal legal system.

While incarcerated, Rita earned a cosmetology instructors license and a certificate in paralegal studies, and even taught English as a Second Language (ESL), among other notable accomplishments. Her story, coupled with her achievements, recently earned her a spot on Can-Do Foundation’s list of top 25 women who deserve clemency. Nonetheless, President Obama has yet to grant clemency in favor of releasing Rita, or many other Latinxs. Although Rita has exhausted all of her appeals, there is still hope in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

This bill would reduce mandatory minimums for many non-violent offenders and give judges more discretion in sentencing. If passed, this bill would join a range of other criminal justice reform initiatives President Obama’s Administration has championed, such as banning solitary confinement for youth in the federal juvenile justice system and pushing to “ban the box” to grant formerly incarcerated people more job opportunities by removing discriminatory questions about past criminal activity from job application forms.

Make no mistake: criminal justice reform is a Latinx issue. But more importantly, it is a human rights issue of epic proportions that touches the lives of many people just like Rita. It demands our immediate attention and Congress’ immediate action.

This article was published in the Huffington Post and you can read it here

Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of Latino Justice PRLDEF. To read the rest of Juan's columns Click Here

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