Immigrants Who Committed Felonies Less Likely to Commit Another Felony Than Nonimmigrants


Prior research has shown that immigrants have lower rates of offending, arrest, and incarceration than nonimmigrants. However, that work hasn’t examined whether this holds true for recidivism. A new study compared recidivism rates of foreign-born and native-born individuals formerly incarcerated for felonies and released from prisons in Florida. It found that immigrants are significantly less likely to re-offend by committing another felony than their nonimmigrant peers.

The study, by researchers at Florida State University, appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

“In concluding that immigrants re-offend at a lower rate than their nonimmigrant peers, our study continues to dispel the myth of the criminal immigrant,” explains Marin R. Wenger, assistant professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University, who co-authored the study. “Our findings suggest that policymakers and others should ignore the heated rhetoric directed toward foreign-born individuals and, in a time of limited resources, focus on groups for which reducing recidivism would translate into safer communities rather than focusing on immigrants.”

Using data from the Florida Department of Corrections, the study compared recidivism rates of 192,556 immigrants and nonimmigrants formerly incarcerated for felonies and released from Florida prisons between 2004 and 2011. Of the total, 188,677 were nonimmigrants and 3,879 were immigrants. Researchers found that 32% of nonimmigrants were reconvicted of a felony offense within three years of release, compared to only 19% of immigrants. Recidivism was defined as reconviction for a felony offense with a new sentence imposed within three years of release.

To determine whether differences in rates of recidivism between the two groups could be accounted for by other factors associated with criminality, the study took into account participants’ gender, age, race and ethnicity, prior felony convictions and most recent felony conviction, and whether the individual had been labeled a habitual offender in Florida. It also considered participants’ prior violations while under supervision; the number of times they were committed to prison; and whether they had a high school diploma, were married, or were employed when they were incarcerated. And it took into account in which judicial circuit the participants were sentenced and their year of release.

Researchers used a variety of methods to assess the link between immigration status and recidivism. While they found that the time to recidivism among those reconvicted was similar for the two groups — 19.5 months for immigrants and 19.3 months for nonimmigrants — they also found that nonimmigrants were more likely to be reconvicted than immigrants, even after taking into account the abovementioned factors. This result held when they repeated their analyses measuring time to recidivism with one, two, and five years.

The authors acknowledge that because their study was restricted to individuals who served time in Florida prisons and were released to a county in Florida, the findings may not be generalizable to other U.S. states. And because their measure of recidivism was restricted to reconviction for a felony offense, results may not be generalizable to other measures of recidivism, like re-arrest.

“Given the current political and social climate and the demand among some legislators for more exclusionary immigration policies, our study is important because it shows that immigrant ex-inmates pose a smaller risk to the community than nonimmigrant ex-inmates,” says Javier Ramos, a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, who co-authored the study.

Reference: “Immigration and Recidivism: What Is the Link?” by Javier Ramos and Marin R. Wenger, 17 September 2019, Justice Quarterly.
DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2019.1656763

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