By: Marcelo E. SIles & Richard Cruz Davila

The United States was created by waves of immigrants who came from all over the world and brought their own languages and cultural practices. Native Americans living in this part of the world before the arrival of Europeans are considered the only non-immigrant people of the Americas. Since Cristóbal Colón’s first trip to the Americas in 1492, intergroup conflict and discrimination has persisted between indigenous peoples and the newcomers from Europe. These tensions became complex when Europeans mixed with indigenous women creating a new ethnic group of “mestizos” which are part of the many subgroups called Latinos in the U.S.
The authors of the 14 chapters in this book focus on the discrimination and unfair legal practices that Latinos have faced historically in the U.S. up through the current day. The authors claim that the experiences of Latinos are less studied and documented in both the academic and public circles than those of Blacks and Whites. In fact, most studies have been conducted through the lens of the White-Black dichotomy. This is the case despite the fact that Latino cultures have been part of America long before the United States existed. Reviewed here are selected chapters to give readers a sense of what is included in this volume.
Chapters 1 through 5 of the book set the historical context for discriminatory treatment of Latinos in the criminal justice system. This discriminatory treatment of Latinos started as early as the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ended the U.S.-Mexico War and resulted in the loss of over 55 percent of Mexico’s territory where more than 100,000 Mexicans lived and had their lands and other properties. Based on this Treaty, Mexicans who lived in the area became U.S. citizens, but later, due to legal chicanery, most of them were treated as second-class citizens and, during periods of American nativism, some were deported to Mexico, losing all their properties.
As David V. Baker notes in Chapter 3, legal discrimination against Mexicans escalated in the years following the Treaty. Repressive laws, such as the State of California’s Vagrancy Act of 1855, known as the Greaser Act, were enforced primarily against Mexicans, Blacks, and Native Americans. The Act led to a high number of lynchings, burnings, and killings of Mexicans by Anglo mobs through 1916. Repressive practices against Mexicans in the Southwest resulted in executions, vigilantism, and mass expulsions. The establishment of the Texas Rangers marks a dark period in the institutionalization of discrimination by Whites against Mexican Americans. This military-type organization conducted numerous killings, lynching, and burnings and came to represent White domination for many Americans of color, especially for Mexican-Americans.
Although the Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal” and the judicial system is based on “equal justice under the law,” the dynamics of the judicial process indicate differential treatment in favor of those with resources, money, power, or prestige. In Chapter 2, Urbina and Álvarez argue that “the U.S. has institutionalized savage inequalities by granting rights to some people, but not to other individuals, while oppressing, marginalizing, and silencing others” (p. 21). These inequalities are evident in how laws treat non-European immigrants: accepting and propagating the idea that the U.S. is a country of White immigrants in which the historical domination of Latinos, framed as non-White immigrants, persists. In this way, the Federal Government has created a new category of people: “illegal immigrants.”
As Robert J. Durán discusses in Chapter 6, in recent decades federal and state governments, in efforts to control gangs, have passed numerous pieces of legislations that result in the profiling of Latinos based on their surnames and how they dress. Latinos have been targeted for being perceived as violent, dangerous, or illegal; in this way they are subjected to strict social control and second-class treatment in the United States. Historically, in order to overcome this unfair treatment, Latinos created several organizations such as Union y Patria in Utah (1920), the Brown Berets in Los Angeles (1968), and the Crusade for Justice in Denver (1965). These grassroots organizations challenged unequal treatment and misconduct by law enforcement officials against Latinos.
As an outcome of these laws, the number of people incarcerated, mostly persons of color, has grown exponentially: 2.3 million were imprisoned by the end of 2005, 4.2 million adults were on probation, almost 800,000 were on parole, 1 in 32 adults or 3.2 percent of the population, were under correctional control. That was at the high point of the incarceration trend. Still, in 2010, the incarceration rate per 100,000 adults for Latino men was 1,258; for Black men 3,074, and for White men 459 (p. 133). As a result, the U.S. not only has the largest prison population and the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, but the gap with other countries remains wide. Today, in the U.S. the most frequent encounter with the police and the courts seems to be distribution, possession, or usage of illegal drugs.
In Chapter 8, Álvarez identifies the six reasons why the inmate population is critically high. One is that the American public generally believes that inmates are serving shorter sentences than before despite the fact that the average prison stay increased by 36% over the last two decades (p. 143). Second, the public believes that “incarcerating more offenders and keeping more offenders under surveillance for longer periods of time will significantly reduce crime rates” (p. 143). Third, the public believes that rehabilitation no longer works, and inmates should be incarcerated for longer periods. Fourth, “political pressure for quick fixes” results in a growing prison industry. Fifth, public fear of crime contributes to the steady influx of new prisoners; and sixth, the potential for profit drives a shift toward increasingly punitive criminal justice policies.
In Chapter 9, Urbina further discusses the barriers that prevent the formerly incarcerated from successfully reentering
communities upon release. He presents recent statistics that show that more than 50,000 people leave prison every month, and more than 650,000 inmates are released from state and federal prisons every year, but about 75% of the released inmates return to prison. Since the 1980s, overcrowding of prisons and tough-on-crime policies have reduced the possibilities for rehabilitation offered to inmates. This means that those exiting the prison system often carry not only the liabilities with which they entered the prison system (limited education, lack of marketable skills, etc.), but they also carry new liabilities such as damaged relationships, the stigma of having been incarcerated, and lack of shelter.
In Chapter 13, Álvarez and Urbina discuss the ways by which processes of globalization exacerbate incarceration inequities through three main areas of law enforcement: a) the globalization of the war on drugs; b) the globalization of the illegal alien ideology, and c) the globalization of national security efforts. A major outcome of these policies has been a sharp increase in incarceration rates, especially among minorities. For example, because of the War on Drugs, on any given day, 32% of Blacks (21 – 29 years of age) and 12% of Latinos are in prison or jail, or on probation or parole, compared to only 6.7% of Whites.
In summary, in the nearly 170 years since the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the American justice system has issued many laws that initially targeted Mexicans and today target Latinos and result in high incarceration rates and longer periods in jail. The imbalanced rates for incarceration and probation between Whites and Latinos show the skewed treatment of how the criminal justice system deals with minorities.
In addition, the lack of appropriate quality training programs to facilitate the reincorporation of inmates into civil society contributes to high rates of recidivism for Latinos. With its detailed analyses of issues faced by Latinos in the criminal justice system, this is a very informative book for scholars engaged in the study of the U.S. criminal justice system and its uneven treatment of minority groups, especially in regard to Latinos. It is also a valuable resource for students of ethnic studies, criminal justice and sociology courses.