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UCLA LPPI Founding Director Sonja Diaz in conversation with Juan Cartegena, president and general counsel of Latino Justice – PRLDEF.

What would our criminal legal system look like if it was truly designed to reduce harm, advance public safety, and end America’s legacy as the world’s leading incarcerator?

That was the question on everyone’s mind last week as our nation’s leading Latino elected officials, advocates, academics, and media personalities convened to grapple with the issue of criminal justice — an issue of intense national debate since last summer. Hosted by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (UCLA LPPI), LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Drug Policy Alliance, and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, the convening Activating Justice Through a Latinx Lens” was aimed at creating greater visibility of Latinos within the justice reform movement, identifying opportunities to build solidarity with other communities most impacted by the criminal legal system, and advancing transformative policy aimed at justice rather than punishment.

“For too long Latinos have been left out of the criminal justice conversation, even though we are the second most negatively impacted group by numbers behind Black people when it comes to our criminal legal systems,” said Sonja Diaz, founding director of UCLA LPPI.

Crimmigration panel moderated by Jonathan Jayes-Greene of the Marguerite Casey Foundation and featuring Jacinta Gonzalez (Mijente), Greisa Martinez Rosas (United We Dream), Jennifer M. Chacón, (UCLA) and Abraham Paulos (Black Alliance for Just Immigration)

With conversations led by UCLA LPPI faculty experts such as Dr. Jennifer Chacón, over 1,000 participants tuned in to hear from a multiracial cadre of 40 speakers covering topics from ending youth incarceration, to the movement to defund the police, to the intersection of the criminal legal and immigration systems — all through a Latinx lens. Featured speakers like renowned journalist Maria Hinojosa and author Julissa Arce created the opportunity for lively discussions about the opportunity to create new, more truthful and inclusive narratives in the criminal justice space and develop tailored solutions that address the underlying structural and systemic deficiencies that drive people to engage in harmful acts.

“It was so exciting to see this come together with so many brilliant people who were able to bring fresh perspective on the issue, the challenges and opportunities before us and how we can work in solidarity across race and experience to achieve common goals that make our communities safer and healthier,” said Paula Nazario, a UCLA LPPI fellow and one of the lead organizers for the convening.

Opening Plenary Moderated by Latino USA’s Maria Hinojosa with Author and Education Advocate Julissa Arce, MacArthur Genius Award Winner and UCLA LPPI Faculty Member Dr. Kelly Lytle-Hernández, UCLA, Judge Natalia Cornelio for the 351st District Court, Harris County Texas and David Luis ‘Suave’ Gonzalez, host of Death by Incarceration and The Suave Podcasts

One of the most engaging discussions of the two-day convening was the opening plenary and break-out sessions that followed. The panel discussion, which featured UCLA LPPI faculty and scholar Dr. Kelly Lytle-Hernández gave attendees key insight into the impacts of the criminal legal system on Latinos, the structural racism propping up our entire system of incarceration, and how the criminalization of immigrants is working to further expand systems of mass incarceration rather than contract them. The subsequent breakout sessions then enabled attendees to think about how they can demand better data that creates a clearer picture of the challenges and opportunities ahead and how Latino facing organizations — both within and outside the justice reform space – can work together to create broad change within these systems.

Over the course of the convening dialogue continually underscored the immense data and knowledge gap that obscures the true impact of the criminal legal system on Latino individuals, their families and their communities. It also highlighted that if this gap persists there is a risk of creating solutions that fail to address challenges unique to Latinx individuals who are systems-impacted and recreating inequities that exist in our current criminal legal system.

The two-day meeting closed out with a conversation with Juan Cartegena, president and general counsel of Latino Justice PRLDEF. During that discussion he highlighted that while our criminal legal system hasn’t changed much in the past five decades, we are on the precipice of big change — change made possible by communities who see an unprecedented opportunity to fundamentally transform our systems of justice.

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that there have been amazing opportunities for organizing people around truth, and for having that truth talk to power,” said Cartegena. I think we’re stronger than ever to actually have conversations about dismantling systems, about what it means to invest in our communities in different ways and to think outside of every box at every corner so we can get things done.”

By UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative (LPPI)

In their 5th Annual Latinx Criminal Justice Convening, LatinoJustice PRLDEF partnered with Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network brought local and national organizations to Brownsville, TX to engage in conversation about Latinos in the criminal justice and immigration systems.

This two-day encuentro was intended to create a space for Latino leaders, activists, academics and impacted community members to explore the connection to the criminal justice and immigration systems across the United States while strategizing new efforts for a more inclusive movement that does not leave anyone behind.

Latino Justice PRLEF’s Jorge Renaud welcoming attendees and introducing the convening and its goals.

“It’s important to be collaborating [and to] bring that intersectionality in this space,” said Christina Patiño Houel, Network Weaver for RGV Equal Voice Network. Intersectionality and inclusivity were interwoven throughout the convening, being cognizant of the ways different structural oppressions work in tandem to affect the most vulnerable in our communities, in order to combat these injustices effectively. An example was how interpreters established a multilingual culture, ensuring Spanish and English-only speakers communicated smoothly with each other, as the organizers understood that language barriers hinder those trying to combat the injustices within the justice system and also understood that interpretation and translation were necessary since the event was a community-centered multi-generational convening. This emphasis was also felt when formerly-incarcerated individuals were welcomed home for the first time, integrating a healing component for all participants.

The discussions began by exploring how criminality, incarceration, immigration and the war on drugs have all played a role in the current relationship between the Latinx community and the criminal justice system. The lack of data on this community was highlighted by LatinoJustice PRLDEF’s president, Juan Cartagena, when he discussed how every system “affects us and we don’t even know how… we’re invisible.” He explained how even as the largest ethnic minority in the country, the system could not answer simple questions as to how many Latinxs are arrested. This point was underscored by Dr. Edward Vargas’, from Arizona State University, urgency for not only the need for data but accurate data. For example, polls said that 34% of Latinos had voted for Trump in Texas, but this number was proven to be wrong. When the precinct data was scraped, the actual number was 16%.

ACLU’s National Campaign Strategist, Jessica Sandoval; Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s Policy Analyst Jose Flores; and Youth Justice Coalition’s Anthony Robles talking speaking on the best strategies to end youth solitary confinement.

Community members highlighted their work on the ground to end collaboration between the state and local police departments with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the states of Texas and Georgia, jail closure and the prevention of a new jail in Los Angeles, and litigation. Crimmigration was the focal point of these conversations, where attorneys explained the importance of litigation and the need for patience in both the length of the process and the lack of social justice lawyers.

The conversation zeroed in on experts as they engaged in fishbowl conversations, discussing the development of gang databases and its impact on the immigrant community, the fight towards ending youth solitary, and the impact of these efforts on a national level.

Day one came to a close with the screening of Bad Hombres: From Colonization to Criminalization by award-winning filmmaker Carlos Sandoval, with attendees expressing their impressions to the documentary.

The second day was reserved for breakout sessions encouraging collaboration and the exchange of best practices in order to advance efforts and find resources in the community. Accountability partners were found and followed-up conversations were scheduled to further collaborate as a group.

“Learning more about crimmigration and its impact on the Latinx community has been eye-opening,” noted second-year UCLA Luskin student María Morales who attended the convening.  “It was an honor being able to attend this convening and feel such passion and dedication in the room.”

Attendees identifying action steps to continue collaboration among the organizations present.