Sentencing the “Other”: Punishment of Latinx Defendants


Some recent state and federal sentencing studies have turned up an interesting puzzle: Contrary to a prominent sociological group threat theory, Latinx defendants seem to be punished most harshly relative to white defendants in court jurisdictions where Latinx populations are smallest. In this Article, we briefly review literature on punishment disparities between Latinx and white defendants (Latinx-white disparity) at the individual case level. Next, we highlight some recent studies that show how Latinx-white disparity in criminal punishment is often conditional on U.S. citizenship status. Third, we describe recent research suggesting that Latinx-white punishment disparities are conditioned by characteristics of social contexts, especially local jurisdictions’ Latinx population presence and immigration characteristics. We then present findings from two current research projects: (1) a study of the relationship between Latinx-white punishment
disparity in federal courts and changes in Latinx immigration in federal districts; and (2) a study of differences in the punishment of Latinx defendants in Pennsylvania state courts across counties that differ in terms of Latinx population size, immigration, and court caseload presence. A key theme of these empirical findings is that Latinx disadvantage in federal court sentencing (for non-immigration offenses) appears to concentrate among non–U.S. citizens (especially those who are undocumented) and in places that are not traditional Latinx immigration destinations. In Pennsylvania state courts, Latinx disadvantage in incarceration relative to white defendants appears to concentrate in counties with small Latinx populations, little or no Latinx population growth, or both. In fact, some of the most severe Latinx-white punishment disparities can be found in places where Latinx people are least numerous.

About the Author

Jeffery T. Ulmer, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at The Pennsylvania State University. Kaitlyn Konefal is a Doctoral student in Criminology at The Pennsylvania State University.