Op-ed: Honor Hispanic Heritage Month by committing to criminal legal system transformation
A colorful mural brightens up the Mexican Heritage Plaza along King Road in the 95116 neighborhood. File photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Over the course of the past few weeks, our communities have come together to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, including a Mexican Flag raising ceremony we all attended on Sept. 16 at San Jose City Hall to commemorate Mexican Independence Day. It was a beautiful event honoring the culture, traditions and values of Mexican people and the Latinx community, including those who live right here in Santa Clara County.

But we know that even in ultra-rich Silicon Valley, Latinx people often live in impoverished neighborhoods plagued by violence, under-resourced schools and a lack of fundamental services. These challenges are exacerbated—not solved—by the inhumane, discriminatory “tough-on-crime” approach taken by police agencies and the DA’s office with our Latinx community.

So to truly honor those of Mexican ancestry and Latinx heritage in this county, we must commit to stop the criminalization and dehumanization of Latinx people by our law enforcement agencies. We must commit to combating stereotypes that degrade and belittle Latinx people and manifest in discriminatory government policies and practices toward them. We must commit to criminal legal system transformation.

We must commit to undo the harms of the over-policing and over-prosecution of Latinx people in this county. Latinx people, just over 20% of the county population, account for 52% of felony prosecutions and more than 50% of all jail bookings. This disparate treatment of Latinx people by law enforcement in Santa Clara County perpetuates systemic racism and continues to cause generational harm to Latinx families and communities.

We must commit to ending discriminatory gang enhancements and the police practices they live on that criminalize Latinx symbols and heritage. As of 2017, 69% of people charged with gang enhancements in Santa Clara County were Latinx. In pursuit of gang arrests and prosecutions, police roam predominantly Latinx neighborhoods and stop, detain, frisk and photograph young, mostly Latino males. Our DA’s office then attaches heavy-handed gang enhancements to charges, thereby subjecting people to excessive prison sentences that don’t address root causes of crime or make our communities safer.

We must commit to repairing our juvenile justice system and dismantling the school to prison pipeline that disparately impacts Latinx young people. According to a DA report, “the racial composition of charged minors in Santa Clara County Juvenile court show a clear over-representation of Latinx youth.” Latinx minors made up nearly 69% of juvenile felony arrests in Santa Clara County in 2019.

The Santa Clara County DA’s office routinely prosecutes and punishes children, often Latino boys, in adult court. The current regime prosecuted 177 children as adults between 2010 and 2014—35% more than Los Angeles County, which has five times the population.

We must commit to disrupting the prison to deportation pipeline that separates Latinx families. We must commit to protecting the dignity and safety of immigrants from Latin America, regardless of documentation status. We must commit to stop the feeding of our Latinx brothers and sisters to federal immigration enforcement agents who cause fear and terror in our communities.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s collectively commit to undoing these ugly disparities and brutal realities. Let’s commit to fighting mass criminalization and systemic racism that disproportionately impact Latinx communities here in the South Bay.

Let’s commit to reallocating the resources we spend policing, prosecuting, punishing and deporting our Latinx brothers and sisters into programs and direct assistance—housing, education, health care and social services—for families and communities that address root causes of crime, alleviate suffering and ensure the wellbeing of Latinx people in Santa Clara County.

Sajid A. Khan is a public defender in San Jose and 2022 candidate for Santa Clara County district attorney. Rebeca Armendariz is a Gilroy councilmember. Omar Torres is trustee for the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District.

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