Defining the Problem: Martin G. Urbina's Capital Punishment and Latino Offenders: Racial and Ethnic Differences in Death Sentences

By Pena, Juan Lazaro | Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

Defining the Problem: Martin G. Urbina's Capital Punishment and Latino Offenders: Racial and Ethnic Differences in Death Sentences


Pena, Juan Lazaro, Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy


(LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC 2003)

In Capital Punishment and Latino Offenders: Racial and Ethnic Differences in Death Sentences, Martin G. Urbina ambitiously attempts to provide a history of race and ethnic relations vis-a-vis the criminal justice system and to analyze race and ethnic differences in death sentence outcomes in the United States. Using a data set of 6,228 cases obtained from the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR #6956), Urbina compares sociodemographic variables and criminal history records to determine the role of race and ethnicity in different contexts. Despite the breadth of his topic and the complexity of his original study, Urbina succeeds in presenting statistical analysis within an accessible narrative.

Capital Punishment and Latino Offenders is organized into five chapters, although only the final two focus on Urbina's original work. Chapter Two explores theories associated with sentencing and includes the race issue in its description of each of five major criminological theories. When discussing the normative theory, for example, Urbina notes its tendency to attribute the high number of minorities in prison solely to the fact that minorities are more likely to break the law. This theory does not address factors leading to the rise in minority crime, such as substandard education systems, discrimination, etc. Another theory, the dessert theory, discusses sentencing and the assertion that criminals should be sentenced according to the severity of their crimes. In light of these deficiencies, Urbina juxtaposes the major theories with newly developed ones, discussing factors that ultimately lead to disparities in crime rates and sentencing among minorities. This chapter is particularly valuable when Urbina discusses his own research later in the book, allowing the reader to see why previous studies may have failed.

In Chapter Three, Urbina discusses prior studies concerning death sentences and death sentence outcomes. Although most of those studies point to some sort of racial and ethnic differences, the disparities between the conclusions given the similarities in studies illustrate the importance of Urbina's original work detailed later in the book. The author also considers other factors affecting outcomes such as prior criminal history and demographic variables. Some previous studies found that the correlation between age and the likelihood of execution is statistically significant. The highest frequency of execution occurs between the ages of 20 to 24 years, while the highest frequency of commutation occurs to those between the ages of 15 to 19 years and those above the age of 55 (Wolfgang et al. 1962). Similarly, education level has an influence in death sentence outcome, as one study found that the median completed school grade of executed prisoners was seventh grade (McCafferty 1962).

Urbina's attempt to summarize the history of U.S. race and ethnic relations (as he titles the fourth chapter of his book) leaves too many gaps and is inappropriately biased. He describes each group (African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Cuban Americans) according to his own preconceptions. Cuban Americans, for example, are largely treated as arrogant and self-interested, and Urbina makes little effort to discuss discrimination against that group. …

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