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Penal Sentencing and the Latino Juvenile Offender

by Taylor Huie

Source: “Latinos in the Juvenile Justice: Youth Crime, but Adult Time”[1]

Written by Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute fellow Angela  Medina in 2001, the article shown above was published by El Editor, a weekly bilingual English and Spanish newspaper based in Midland-Odessa, Texas.[2] This article details the effect of “tough-on-crime” legislation on rulings and treatment of juvenile offenders. Medina focuses on the distinct relationship between race and juvenile rulings under these new legislations – most notably the skewed adult treatment of Latino youth compared to white juveniles. She notes that Latino youth were found three times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated on account of similar public order offenses.[3] Medina shares the story of a 16-year-old Latino boy tried as an adult for a crime he did not directly commit. This narrative is shared to represent the unjust criminal treatment of youth as young as 11 years old under the “tough-on-crime” legislation and specifically the biased criminal rulings for Latino youth.

Though this is a fairly recent document in the scope of history, it provides insight into the relationship between race, age, and incarceration during a highly turbulent time of American penal and racial history. To understand the intended scope of this article, it is important to note its placement and context within the newspaper itself.  The article was published side-by-side in both English and Spanish on the first page of this edition of El Editor. This indicates the relative importance of the article compared to surrounding articles published only in English or Spanish. In fact, this article is the only one in the entire newspaper published in both languages. This suggests its intended message was regarded as so important that is was necessary to take up additional front-page newspaper real estate to ensure all individuals could read and understand its message. Removing any potential language barrier suggests the intended audience was anyone that might have access to the newspaper or come across the article. Therefore, rather than targeting a specific audience, its message was intended to be shared with all audiences. That said, the newspaper’s subheading is “Serving the Hispanic Market Since 1977.”[4] So while Medina perhaps intended for this article to reach a wider audience, its actual scope was likely skewed toward primarily Hispanic individuals in Western Texas.

While the effects Medina addresses on legislation related to decreased tolerance for crime in the United States may not have been the initial intent of these ruling, they have resulted in unforgiving sentencing for juveniles and minority youth. Medina offers statistics on the danger young people face in adult penal facilities and acknowledges that while these statistics are widely documented, no action has been taken to protect these youth.[5] In adult penal facilities, youth are denied opportunities and programs commonly provided by juvenile centers such as less harsh sentences, education, mental health treatment, rehabilitation, and both sexual and physical protection. United States Justice Potter Stewart expressed concern toward the impact of “tough-on-crime” legislation, suggesting it seems to promote a penal system focused on punishment versus rehabilitation.[6] Stewart emphasizes that the initial purpose of a separate juvenile justice system was to “correct a condition,” likely referring to the 70% of juvenile offenders with at least one psychiatric disorder.[7] In the absence of rehabilitative programs, it makes sense why juveniles sentenced to adult penal facilities are less likely to be successfully rehabilitated into good capital subjects with low recidivism. Research on juvenile delinquency and sentencing conducted in Texas found that while harsh sentencing of juvenile offenders may under certain conditions result in decreased recidivism, the cost-benefit analysis was unjustifiable.[8] By trying juveniles as adults and increasing juvenile incarceration, not only is it detrimental to the development of these young people, but it also creates an unnecessary financial burden on taxpayers.[9] Rather than spending the $360 million annually, as the research extrapolates, these funds could instead be invested toward valuable goods and services for the public or within the justice system.[10] Reallocating these funds could work to decrease the number of young people committing crimes in the first place. This shift, however, would require a revolutionary movement to choose to prevent rather than treat or respond to crime.

Just before the publishing of Medina’s article on the juvenile judicial system, Mexico’s newly elected president Vincent Fox vowed to improve the status of its estimated over 3.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.[11] This timely political promise suggests the presence of Latinos in the United States during the early 2000s was largely considered unfavorable, perhaps suggesting there were strong racial sentiments toward Latino immigrants and Latino American citizens. Medina references research analyzing the impact of placing juveniles in the adult criminal justice system.[12] Interestingly, the research does not specify whether the Latino juveniles studied were immigrants or US citizens, a distinction of seemingly increasing political importance. This suggests that the status of criminals’ citizenship was perhaps regarded as less significant compared to their race. Part of the reasoning behind this disregard for citizenship may have been a result of most incarcerated people of Mexican descent claiming US nativity in order to avoid deportation following the end of their sentence.[13] This, however, was not the only instance of racial injustice and disregard for citizenship in the history of the United States penal system. Individuals of African descent also have a long-standing unjust relationship with discipline and punishment in the Western world. In the post-emancipation era, former slaves in both the United States[14] and its territories[15] were legally considered citizens but were strategically prevented from ever reaching the full status of citizenship under the driving forces of racial capitalism and systemic racism. Similar analyses can be applied to the biased treatment of Latino juvenile offenders. This chain of injustice present throughout the penal system, from its inception to present, effectively perpetuates the suppression of minority groups.

While racial injustice is certainly an important aspect of the statistics detailed in Medina’s article, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the other factors of prejudice and social justice that undoubtedly play a role in the minority representation in the juvenile justice system. This article, therefore, serves to only begin to unveil the cruel reality of juvenile and racial criminalization in America, as well as the unjust treatment of juvenile offenders as adults. This article is not just informative, but it is a demand for justice. It is a call to action for maltreated communities and allies to protect their friends, family, and children.



[1] Angela Medina, “Latinos in the Juvenile Justice: Youth Crime, but Adult Time,” El Editor 20, no. 30 (March 14, 2001): 1. https://voices-revealdigital-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/?a=d&d=ELEDIT20010314-01.1.1&srpos=9&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-juvenile+incarceration————–1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bonnie T. Zima, “Tough on Crime or Tougher on Those Who Need Care?” Psychiatric Services 59, no. 9 (2008): 955–55. https://doi.org/10.1176/ps.2008.59.9.955.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Simon M. Fass et al., “Getting Tough on Juvenile Crime: An Analysis of Costs and Benefits,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 39, no. 4 (2002): 363–99. https://doi.org/10.1177/002242702237285.

[9] Fass et al., “Getting Tough,” 383.

[10] Fass et al., “Getting Tough,” 386.

[11] “Timeline: U.S.-Mexico Relations,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed July 28, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-mexico-relations.

[12] Jolanta Juszkiewicz, “Youth Crime/Adult Time: Is Justice Served?” Corrections Today, (February 2001). https://www.njjn.org/uploads/digital-library/resource_127.pdf.

[13] Paul S. Taylor, “Crime and the Foreign Born: The Problem of the Mexican” in Report on Crime and Criminal Justice in Relation to the Foreign Body for National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1931), 197-243. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/44548NCJRS.pdf.

[14] Sarah Haley, “No Mercy Here,” University Press Scholarship Online, (September 2016): 9.

[15] Dawn P. Harris, “Punishing the Black Body: Marking Social and Racial Structures in Barbados and Jamaica,” University of Georgia, (December 01, 2017): 94.