For the first time - Latinos make up more than half of all federal felony offenders sentenced so far this year, a major demographic shift swollen by immigration offenses, according to a new government report.

Latinos already outnumber all other ethnic groups sentenced to serve time in prison for federal felonies.

The report released Tuesday shows that Latinos reached the milestone by making up the majority of all federal felony offenders sentenced in the first nine months of fiscal year 2011, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Latinos comprised 50.3 percent of all people sentenced in that time period, blacks 19.7 percent and whites 26.4 percent.

In comparison, last year Latinos made up just 16 percent of the whole U.S. population.

The commission's statistics also reveal that sentences for felony immigration crimes — which include illegal crossing and other crimes such as alien smuggling — were responsible for most of the increase in the number of Latinos sent to prison over the last decade.

The demographic change in who is being sent to federal prison has already prompted debate among commissioners and experts studying the impact of expedited court hearings along the border.

"Statistics like this have to start drawing attention to this country's immigration policies and what we're doing, if this is one of the results," said Fordham University Law School professor Deborah Denno, an expert on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. "The implications for Latinos are huge when you think of the number of families affected by having their breadwinners put away for what in some cases would be considered a non-violent offense."

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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