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Racial/ethnic bias in criminal sentencing has been studied extensively (Austin, 1985; Blumstein, Cohen, Martin, & Tonry, 1983; Farrell & Holmes, 1991; Hagan, 1974; Holmes & Daudistel, 1984; Holmes, Hosch, Daudistel, Perez, & Graves, 1993; Hood & Harlan, 1991; Kleck, 1981; LaFree, 1985a, 1985b; Myers & Talarico, 1986; Petersilia, 1985; Pope, 1979; Spohn, 1995; Tinker, Quiring, & Pimental, 1985; Unnever, 1982; Welch, Gruhl, & Spohn, 1984; Zatz, 1985, 1987). Nevertheless, empirical support for racial/ethnic bias in sentencing decisions has been inconsistent due to inadequate theoretical conceptualizations, methodologies, and data (Hagan, 1974; Kleck, 1981; Zatz, 1987). Theoretically, the overwhelming abundance of research on racial/ethnic bias in criminal sentencing has focused on African Americans, precluding explanations on criminal sentencing differentials found among other racial/ethnic groups. Similarly, the limited research on Latinos and criminal sentencing focuses on Hispanic criminal justice experiences primarily in the southwestern United States, which may be different than that of Puerto Ricans in the Northeast, Cubans in Miami, and other Latino ethnic groups throughout the country.
The tendency to categorize Latinos as White according to pre-1970 U.S. Census Bureau procedures is methodologically troublesome. This undoubtedly calls into question not only criminological research but also most sociological research based on the all-too-common Black/White or White/non-White racial dichotomy (Georges-Abeyie 1989, 1992; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990). Also of concern when examining the effects of race/ethnicity on sentencing dispositions are specific regional concentrations of racial/ethnic groups. Research suggests that some of the greatest White/Black disparity in imprisonment is in characteristically rural and predominantly White north-central states (Bridges & Crutchfield, 1988; Christianson, 1980a, 1980b). Research also shows non-Whites receiving harsher sentencing in urban as well as rural counties where their presence is relatively large. Hence, employing counties as units of analysis can shed light on criminal sentencing research because large, official aggregate data sets may have the ultimate effect of masking racial/ethnic discrimination in the legal system due to intrastate variations in minority population density (Hawkins & Hardy, 1989).
With this in mind, our study addresses a void in empirical sentencing research. In particular, we examine misdemeanor sentencing decisions in three nonurban Nebraska counties with relatively large, Latino, and primarily Mexican populations for two reasons. We contend that the significant growth of the Latino population in not only Nebraska (Aponte & Siles, 1994; Rochin & Siles, 1996) but also throughout the midwestern region of the country has evoked historical and socially constructed stereotypical images of and beliefs about Mexican criminality. These socially manipulated images and beliefs provide the justification and rationale for the dual standard of enforcement and punishment of misdemeanor criminal codes that favor Anglos over Latinos. We further contend that bias in the enforcement of misdemeanor criminal codes is part of the cumulative disadvantage (Zatz, 1987) that Latinos are susceptible to throughout all stages of the criminal justice system. More specifically, bias in the enforcement and punishment of misdemeanor criminal codes poses negative implications in the enforcement and punishment of felony criminal codes for Latinos. This double standard of justice is what Mirande (1987) has aptly coined "gringo justice."
Early research on Mexicans and criminal sentencing (i.e., Bogardus, 1943; Kluckholm, 1954; Rudoff, 1971; Sanders, 1958) distorted the image of Mexicans by portraying them as innately criminal and prone to thievery and lawlessness (Mirande, 1987; Trujillo, 1974), an image often associated with non-White racial/ethnic groups (Romero & Stelzner, 1985). Assuredly, early researchers of Mexican criminality failed to take into account preconceived notions of Mexicans prevalent among Anglos in U.S. society since initial interactions between the two groups began on the northern Mexican frontier in the early 19th century. The socially constructed criminal nature of Mexicans became solidified with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which in theory ended wartime hostilities between the United States and Mexico. More specifically, Mexicans remaining in forfeited Mexican territory, now more commonly known as the southwestern United States, were guaranteed not only land ownership rights but also political and cultural rights. However, an unscrupulous process began in which land, property, and status were legally stripped from Mexicans--legal in the sense that unethical and often violent commercial ventures were sanctioned by all levels of the U.S. civil and criminal justice systems. Responding to injustices, many Mexicans went outside of the American legal system to rectify the situation, which repeatedly produced furious, bloodstained confrontations between Mexicans and Anglos. Subsequently, the image of the cutthroat Mexican bandit preying on law-abiding American citizens and territory was easily created. Stripped of any social, economic, and political clout, Mexicans were next to helpless in combating Anglo law enforcement officials and the cultivation and maintenance of this criminal image by journalists, politicians, and intellectuals. At various points in time, these forces have worked to mobilize bias against Mexicans, rationalizing and justifying the differential treatment they encounter in the American criminal justice system (Mirande, 1987; Trujillo, 1974).
A contemporary example is evident in ongoing local and national media debates on the impact of Latino immigrants in emergent rural meatpacking communities throughout the Midwest. Numerous quotes by politicians, police officials, community leaders, and intellectuals alike mention the resultant crime problem apparently associated with Latino immigrant populations. Despite solid evidence to support this claim, the mere presence of Latino immigrants instills fear among longtime residents (Bergstrom, 1995; Carney, 1995; Cooper, 1997; Hedges, Hawkins, & Loeb, 1996; Hendee, 1996; Norman, 1996; Yearwood, 1995). Becker (1963) long ago defined an outsider as one who "may be seen as a special kind of person, one who cannot be …