Nancy Rodriguez is an associate professor in the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at ASU. She specializes on juvenile justice and the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender and crime.

Studies across the United States have showed that African American youth who live in lower class neighborhoods fare worse in the juvenile justice system than their white counterparts who are lower class as well.

ASU Professor Nancy Rodriguez sought to determine if the communities where juveniles live in Maricopa County, Arizona, affect decisions in the juvenile justice system.

"What I set out to do was quite simple," she said. But the answers she got were much more complex particularly as applied to Latinos.

"I found that in essence, class or…poverty was less relevant for Latino youth," Rodriguez said. "Stated differently, it didn't matter whether you lived in high poverty areas or low poverty areas that you were far more likely to be detained than your counterpart."

The findings were surprising, Rodriguez said, because "this was worse…than what we saw for the African American previous studies that looked at class because it was only black youth who lived in lower class areas that fared worse."

In Maricopa County, if you are a juvenile Latino, you are more likely to be detained by judges, regardless of whether you come from an upscale neighborhood or an impoverished one.

"So what are some of the possible explanations? I argued that it may be in essence a fear of Latino youth regardless of whether you have money or you don't have money. You may be perceived as a threat to your community regardless of that type of community," Rodriguez said.

Other researchers chimed in with their own theories, Rodriguez said.

"I think what becomes interesting is explaining why it is that Latinos from communities from money, right, with a lot more resources were more likely to be detained," she said. "In talking to some scholars on this issue, they said, 'Have you ever thought that maybe…the judges hold them to a higher standard because they have money? They should not be engaged in delinquent activity. They in essence have the resources to allow them other options, so they should know better and therefore should be treated more harshly because they have those resources.' I don't know. That's another possible explanation."

While that study looked at detention, the initial phase of the juvenile justice process, Rodriguez did a second study on the intersection of race and ethnicity in the imprisonment of juveniles for six months or longer in Arizona.

"What I found was that Latinos throughout the state of Arizona, all else being equal, again, taking into account the same offense, the same prior records, same educational level, a sleuth of factors…that they were more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated," she said. She also said that family factors mattered far more for Latinos than any other group in decisions to imprison juveniles.

"In other words, family factors did not matter for black youth or for Native American youth, who I also looked at in this study, but they were salient factors in the decision to remove a child from the home for Latinos. This was more for Latinos who resided with a single mom and who were in the foster care system." She also found that changes in guardians or caretakers of repeat juvenile offenders "only mattered for Latino youth. They were…treated more severely than their counterparts given the presence of that change in custodial guardian."

She dug more deeply into Maricopa County records to try to found out why these trends were playing out. "What did I find? Well, not surprisingly there are negative attributions that are associated to Latinos who, unfortunately, have certain circumstances in their lives."

From looking through case files, Rodriguez saw that one Latino youth was recommended for incarceration by a court official, "who is documenting the fact that mom works a lot and leaves the youth unattended; being unattended means that you are at a high risking for re-offending. Placing you on community supervision would only allow there to be more victims. In other words, you are a threat to public safety. This was something that was quite consistent in the data."

History of parental and sibling incarceration also plays a role in how juveniles are treated and Latino incarceration rates have soared over the past three decades. Rodriguez cited one case where a probation officer noted, "Listen, this is a problem because he has no role model whatsoever."

Rodriguez said she also is conducting more research on how children of parents who are incarcerated are impacted. She interviewed 300 men who are fathers in prison and 300 women who are mothers in prison in Arizona.

She found that three-quarters of the Latino fathers had been incarcerated as youth, higher than all other racial and ethnic groups. She also found that 28 percent of the Latinos had a parent, mainly fathers, who had spent time in prison. And 16 percent of the fathers said the mother of their children had spent time in prison. "Latinos not only were more likely to have a history of parental incarceration, more likely to have the other parent be incarcerated but they also reported that their children are more likely to have experienced incarceration already and CPS involvement," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said that the juvenile courts have been very cooperative in providing access to sensitive records for her research, which she shares with those in charge. "You should know that they were astonished. They were surprised. They were concerned about the fact that these notations actually were associated so highly with race and ethnicity. That did lead to many discussions surrounding what is it that the Juvenile Court System can do, so much so that the current presiding juvenile judge, said to me, 'I want a study of my whole Juvenile Justice System because I want to know where overrepresentation is. I want to know because we need to be able to address it.' So that is good."

Rodriguez said that while changing the juvenile justice system is a slow process because much more discretion is given to officials than in adult courts, that if she "had $10 million" she would work on prevention, intervention, school retention and programs to strengthen the family to help Latino youth stay out of the juvenile justice system.

Discussion/questions from participants


Working in California prisons, "I think that if we made these institutions more family friendly, mostly all the fathers that I had talked to incarcerated would love to have a relationship with their family…That's kind of what we're talking about [inaudible 53:14] is to be able to hold a man responsible. It's amazing when you get 30, 40 men, and you're telling them…did you write your son, your daughter, and hold them responsible next time you come. Those cards make a big difference. The other is creating mentoring programs" by going into juvenile facilities. "We found that very, very positive."


Any research on the cost of educating a young man as opposed to sending him to prison?


"What's the cost of educating that young man—man or woman as opposed to having that person in jail? Costing it out for the Latino community, that might be a very interesting thing to be able to do, and there's probably some ways in which that could probably begin to happen. Taking the numbers of, I guess, the possibilities of being productive as opposed to being in jail or the cost of that same population being in school rather than being in prison, those are probably some models that—avenues that could be explored, in terms of quantifying it. There are other things though in my presentation that I'm trying to say on cost to our communities that go beyond simply the financial. We're talking about political costs to our community."


"I'm starting to notice a little bit of demographic change within the Department of Corrections with more Latinos and blacks being officers and the effect that it will have in our community. Can you talk a little bit about that?"


There has been change, often through lawsuits. But, "you can have a police force that has greater Latino and African American representation and still have very disparate results when those officers are policing African and Latino community and they're policing white communities, mostly because they're not really setting the
policy. They're enforcing the policies." In addition, "there are some studies that are really saying that in some instances African Americans and Latino officers are even harsher on their community. They have to prove that they are blue, that they're not black or brown, that they are part of the police force. That is one of the things that we've been experiencing in our communities."


"I just want to say I know that we're among friends and that people in this room understand and work with kids who get in trouble and who end up being at higher risk. Yet sometimes the Latino community in general does not see. They're like, 'Those are throw away kids.' Like, 'Why are you working with those kids troublemakers?' That's kind of the attitude. I want to speak to the shift that we as a community need to have in seeing that even those who are most at risk and the kids who get in most trouble, they're still our children. We have to fight for the ones who are at most risk."