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Latinos, Texas, and Justice

By Belinda Acosta, August 1, 2003, News

Four of 10 Texans are Latino, and one in 10 is African-American. Yet, 70% of prisoners in Texas jails and prisons are Latino or African-American. These and other disheartening statistics are included in a National Council of La Raza statistical brief released in Austin last month. According to NCLR, the brief is the first of its kind to specifically examine the incarceration of Latinos in Texas.

Members of the newly formed NCLR Texas Criminal Justice Project, composed of community-based organizations from across the state, presented the brief at the NCLR's national convention in Austin, along with strong criticism of Texas' juvenile-justice system. Project members say that first-time, nonviolent offenders -- typically juveniles arrested for substance-abuse offenses -- are lost in a system that costs more and is less effective than providing treatment alternatives such as are provided by project members in their home communities.

"When President Bush had his 'problem,' when his children [and] his brother's children had their 'problems,' it was labeled 'youthful indiscretion.' None of them has ever been in the juvenile-justice system. They got the help they needed," said Juan Sanchez, speaking on behalf of Austin-based American YouthWorks and the Southwest Key Program.

Key findings of the brief indicate:

Of 740,000 offenders incarcerated in Texas jails and prisons, 70% are Latino or African-American.

There is a clear link between low educational achievement, high poverty, and crime. Only one in two Latinos (25 and older) are high school graduates (49%), compared to 75% of all Texans. The poverty rate for Latinos in Texas is 25%; for African-Americans, 18%; and for Anglos, 7%.

Latinos, African-Americans, and Anglos share identical rates of alcohol-related traffic accidents, yet 39% of those incarcerated for DWI offenses are Latino.

Despite the proven success of drug courts -- special courts that explicitly address offenders' substance-abuse problems -- only six exist in Texas (of 1,200 nationwide). Only one out of 25 people arrested for drug offenses in Texas have access to a drug court.

The NCLR applauded the recent passage of Texas HB 2668, which will allow first-time, nonviolent offenders to get treatment as an alternative to incarceration for certain drug and alcohol offenses. Authored by Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, HB 2668 -- advanced in the Legislature as a money-saving measure -- is considered a groundbreaking reform of Texas' criminal-justice system. It takes effect Sept. 1.

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