April 7, 2009

Hispanics and the Criminal Justice System

Low Confidence, High Exposure

I. Overview

At a time when Latinos are interacting more than ever with police, courts and prisons, their confidence in the U.S. criminal justice system is closer to the low levels expressed by blacks than to the high levels expressed by whites, according to a pair of nationwide surveys by the Pew Research Center.1

Six-in-ten (61%) Hispanics say they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence that the police in their local communities will do a good job enforcing the law, compared with 78% of whites and 55% of blacks. Just under half (46%) of Hispanics say they have confidence that police officers will not use excessive force on suspects, compared with 73% of whites and 38% of blacks. Similarly, just under half of Hispanics say they are confident that police officers will treat Hispanics fairly (45%) and that courts will treat Hispanics fairly (49%). In comparison, 74% of whites and 37% of blacks say they have confidence that the police will treat blacks and whites equally (Pew Social & Demographic Trends, 2007).

In recent decades, Hispanics’ exposure to all parts of the criminal justice system has risen even faster than their rising share of the U.S. adult population. In state, federal and local prisons and jails, the share of inmates who were Hispanic increased from 16% in 2000 to 20% in 2008 (West and Sabol, 2009). During this period, the share of Hispanics in the adult U.S. population rose from 11% to 13%.

Overall, according to the Pew Center on the States, some 4% of adult Hispanics in 2007 were either in prison or jail or on probation or parole. This is larger than the share of whites (2%) who were under some form of corrections control in 2007 and smaller than the share of blacks (9%).

As for rates of violent crime victimization, Hispanic levels (28.4 per 1,000 individuals) were higher than those of whites (23.9 per 1,000) and lower than those of blacks (32.9 per 1,000) in 2006 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008).2 In the past 15 years, rates of victimization for all three groups have fallen by more than half (Catalano, 2006).

This report is based on a bilingual telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,015 Hispanics ages 18 and older. Interviews were conducted from June 9 through July 13, 2008, by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center. The margin of error for the sample is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. For a description of the survey methodology, see Appendix 1.

Other key findings of the report:

About this Report

The 2008 National Survey of Latinos asked Hispanic adults about their views of the police and courts in their communities, their perceptions of crime and any interaction they or their immediate family members have had with the criminal justice system. The survey was conducted from June 9 through July 13, 2008, among a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of 2,015 Hispanic adults. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

A Note on Terminology

The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably in this report, as are the terms “foreign born” and “immigrant.”

The terms “whites” and “blacks” are used to refer to the non-Hispanic components of their population unless otherwise noted.

  1. The Pew Hispanic Center National Survey of Latinos 2008 sampled 2,015 Hispanic adults between June 9 and July 13, 2008. The Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project’s Racial Attitudes in America Survey sampled 3,086 adults between September 5 and October 6, 2007.
  2. Victimization rates reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics for whites and blacks include the Hispanic portions of those populations.