Driven by a crackdown on illegal immigration, Latinos now make up by far the largest percentage of offenders sentenced in federal courts, according to a study released Wednesday.
Latinos accounted for 40% of all people sentenced to federal crimes in 2007, even though they made up only 13% of the U.S. adult population, according to the study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. In 1991, Latinos made up 24% of all sentenced offenders.
The study's authors, Mark Hugo Lopez and Michael T. Light, attribute the change in part to the increase in the undocumented immigrant population and to federal enforcement programs such as Operation Gatekeeper, which targeted illegal crossers along the Southwest border.
In 2007, nearly half of Latino offenders were sentenced for an immigration offense, up from 1 in 5 in 1991. Immigration offenses represented nearly a quarter of all federal convictions in 2007, up from 7% in 1991.
"There was a very sharp rise of immigration offenses as a share of all offenses," said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center.
Among those sentenced for immigration offenses in 2007, 80% were Latino, according to the report.
The study, which relied on data from U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics, analyzed the ethnic makeup and citizenship status of offenders sentenced in federal courts in the U.S. from 1991 to 2007.
From 1991 to 2007, the total number of offenders sentenced in federal courts more than doubled, while the number of Latino offenders nearly quadrupled. Nevertheless, federal courts accounted for a very small portion -- 6% -- of all sentenced felons in the U.S.
More than half of all Latino offenders in 2007 were sentenced at one of five courts in Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico, all near the U.S.-Mexico border. The sentences for Latinos in 2007 were generally shorter than for other ethnic groups -- 46 months, compared with 91 months for blacks and 62 months for whites.
The study shows that the government "is making more of an effort to try to go after people who have repeatedly come to the U.S. illegally," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
"It is going to take some time and some investment to show that they are serious about immigration enforcement," he said. "But it does have a long-term deterrent effect."
But Wendy Sefsaf, communications manager for the Immigration Policy Center, believes the report illustrates the failure of the government's enforcement-only immigration policies and how they are clogging the courts and prisons, she said.
"We are just locking up people who are not criminals, who are undocumented workers," she said. "We are pulling resources away from prosecuting serious criminals."
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., up from about 4 million in 1992. Among all Latino offenders, 72% were not U.S. citizens.
Three quarters of the immigration offenders were convicted of unlawfully entering or remaining in the U.S. Just under 20% were convicted of smuggling, transporting or harboring an illegal immigrant.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)A growing population
Latinos accounted for 40% of all federally sentenced prisoners in 2007, a major increase from 1991. They became a majority of those sentenced in 1998.
Sentenced federal offenders
Source: Pew Hispanic Center