Hispanics urge end to biased treatment
BY JOHN AGAR
The Grand Rapids Press
Lloyd Stegenga likes to help the neighborhood kids stay out of trouble by building low-rider bicycles at his West 14th Street home.
But he worries that teenagers, like his 14-year-old brother, get wrongly tagged as gang members because they're Hispanic.
"Kids are still labeled by the schools, by police, by many people out there. Half the people that label the kids have no contact with kids," Stegenga said. His comments came during Thursday night's forum to discuss a report that showed minority youths in Ottawa County are treated more harshly by the legal system than white youths.
About 100 people -- including court officials, county commissioners, Hispanic leaders and residents -- came to the forum at Holland's Community Education Building. Two women translated comments and questions during the three-hour forum. Most of the people who spoke said the study showed that discrimination remains a fact or life for minorities.
Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justic conducted the study, based on 468 cases referred to the court between March 1, 1995, and March 31, 1996. It included interviews with police, school officials and court workers.
The report found that Hispanic youths without a criminal record were far more likely to be charged than whitesin similar circumstances. Every Hispanic youth arrested on a felony allegation with charged, while 81.1 percent of white youths were charged, the study showed.
Stegenga, a 19-year-old lifelong Holland resident, said the study confirmed suspicions held by many minority youths.
"I'm glad it came out, but I'm more concerned with what's going to happen now," he said.
That's the task before local officials, said Ottawa County Juvenile Court Judge Mark Feyen, who requested the study to address the disproportionate numbers of minorities in the juvenile justice system.
"We wanted to get a handle on the scope of the problem," Feyen said. "We now have to begin the difficult task of what do we do with the results. All I can tell you is this has caused to reexamine some of our policies."
He said the court has to make sure that its procedures focus on the behavior and attitude of youths, and aren't culturally biased. He said that detention workers have a series of questions they ask police before locking up young offenders: Is the offender on probation? Can his parents be located? Is the offender dangerous? Is he likely to show for future hearings?
"The ethnic origin or skin color of the offender is not one of the questions," Feyen said.
The report also said that stronger police presence in inner-city neighborhoods could be lead to a higher proportion of minority arrests, especially with community-policing officers targeting those neighborhoods. He said a teenager spray-painting gang graffiti is probably going to be dealt with more harshly than another damaging property.
"If a 15-year-old is standing on the corner after curfew, they're much more likely to be arrested if they're standing on 17th and College (in Holland) than in Borculo," he said.
"White neighborhoods have gangs," said another woman, who wouldn't give her name.
Lu Reyes, executive director of Holland Community Health Center warned county commissioners that "the Hispanic community is also a voting community." She and others wanted to make sure that follow-up is done on the study. A committee is already being put together to address issues in the report.
Lidia Sanders, a 17-year-old senior at Holland High School who is the reigning "queen" for the local group Latin Americans United fro Progress, said youths should be part of the committee.
"It's going to affect them; it is affecting them. When they see they're being discriminated against, they get angry."
Her mother, Stella, called for increased minority hiring by the county.
The study "confirms what we've been saying for years," said LAUP president Tino Reyes. "How can minorities have faith and trust in a system that treats them differently?"
He said his organization wants to be a part of the solution.
Gail Harrison of the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance, said, "As long as we point the finger at somebody else and say 'You have the bias, and I don't', we can't address the problem."
Local Hispanic leaders were encouraged by the forum.
"I believe there's a commitment on the part of the juvenile system to follow through on the recommendations," said Rick Muniz, Holland Schools multiculturalism education facilitator.