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Oct. 14, 2020

Faculty voice: Making sure everyone is accounted for

Francisco Villarruel looks at how Latinx youth are identified through data collection in the criminal justice system.

Later this month, social scientist Francisco Villarruel from the Department of Human Development and Family Studies will be presenting research in a Congressional briefing sponsored by the Hispanic Congressional Caucus. Working closely with Representative Tony Cárdenas (CA-29), Villarruel will be explaining the importance of proper data collection for youth involved with the criminal justice system to Congressional representatives and their staff. 

What research will you be presenting to Congress? 

In 2002, we issued a first-of-its-kind report looking at Latinx youth in juvenile detention facilities in the United States. One of the things we discovered from that research was that some of the states didn't have a process for collecting data on adjudicated Latinx youth in various parts of the system. When youth enter the juvenile justice system, there are supposed to be multiple stages where data is collected, to see if there are disparate or differential processes that are used for racial and ethnic minorities. This is why the issue of accurate data counts is so important. 

When analyzing federal data, we see that the rates of juvenile crime have decreased over the last decade, but in general, it appears that youth of color — African American and Latinx youth in particular — have seen increases in secure detention and arrests. 

This most recent report looked at the last 18 years to analyze what has and has not changed. This particular report focused specifically on the ten most populous Latinx states, and demonstrated that there are notable within and across state differences. For example, in one state, the police may use one process for identification while the courts may use another, and in another state, those processes are completely different. 

Given the continual growth of Latinx populations in the United States, and the fact that we see more youth being involved with the juvenile justice system, we need better data on who is involved, because if we're going to use evidence-based prevention or intervention programs, we need to have accurate information about the people we are trying to reach. 

What legislation/policy action are you hoping this research will inform?

We're hoping that the report establishes a demonstration project where we can work within and between two states to pilot and implement a data collection methodology that would more accurately count Latinx youth. That way, we can recommend a particular process that can be used consistently across and within states that is evidence-based and supported by research.

As an example from our report, within the 85 different jurisdictions that we looked at, racial information was collected in 76% of them, ethnic data was only collected in 26%. This is problematic, because "Latinx" is not a racial category, meaning 74% of states aren't accounting for these youth. When data collectors only focus on race, the data doesn't reflect what's happening behind the walls. 

Why is it important for academics and legislators to come together on this issue?

What we know from researching evidence-based practices is that when culturally-responsive interventions or prevention initiatives are developed, the outcomes are significantly better for minimizing criminal involvement with racialized minority youth. 

If we don't have proper data on the numbers of Latinx youth that are in the system, our interventions will not be as relevant to the populations they are intended to serve. Remember, when we talk about Latinx youth, we're talking about youth from 23 different nations, so our approaches must factor in those differences, or else we cannot properly support their transition into healthy adulthood, because it isn't a good fit. 

Learn more about the research that Villarruel will be presenting here. 

This piece was originally featured on the College of Social Sciences website.



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