Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be incarcerated and are given longer sentences relative to majority groups. However, to what extent are non citizens punished differently than citizens? Michael Light, Michael Massoglia, and Ryan King, using federal court data from the United States Sentencing Commission, find that some of the incarceration disparity attributed to ethnicity/race is due to citizenship status.
Controlling for numerous factors, such as criminal history and offense type, the researchers find that “noncitizen offenders are over four times more likely to be incarcerated,” and that noncitizens receive roughly an additional 3.5 months of additional prison time. Further, the effect of citizenship on incarceration is larger than other factors such as race, offense type, and gender. The researchers also find that while the odds of incarceration for both documented and undocumented immigrants are raised, it is the undocumented individuals who are at a higher odds of being imprisoned relative to documented immigrants. The effect of citizenship on incarceration has in fact increased steadily from 1992-2008, which was a time of heavy immigration into the United States.
So noncitizens are more likely to be incarcerated and for longer periods when they are indeed convicted. But why? The authors suggest a few reasons – First, legal officials often have limited time and imperfect knowledge surrounding a case, and may resort to factors such as citizenship to aid in their decision making process. Second, less integrated groups, like immigrants, have less knowledge and power when it comes to navigating America’s social structures and are more prone to disparate treatment by institutions. Finally, the dominant group (legal citizens) may perceive minority groups (immigrants) as a threat to their superior social position, and incarceration is used as a strategy to keep immigrants in a powerless position. Overall, the research here highlights how citizenship proves to be an important factor in incarceration decisions, above and beyond the usual suspects of race and ethnicity.