Immigration Status May Act as Protective Factor in Sentencing

Photo of Justin AmundsonOffenders with federal immigration detainers received significantly shorter sentences in state courts than those that did not face deportation, except in cases involving life or death sentences, researchers found.

Offenders facing deportation received 11 percent shorter sentences than other convicted criminals sentenced to prison in a study of a large southern state with a significant immigrant population. The study, by Dr. Erin A. Orrick and Kiersten Compofelice of Sam Houston State University and Dr. Alex R. Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas, found an average one-year difference in sentence lengths between deportable and non-deportable offenders.

“Much of the existing discussion surrounding the immigration–crime link has been influenced by public perceptions of the criminality of illegal immigrants,” said Dr. Orrick. “Recent empirical studies, however, suggest that immigrant status may instead operate as a protective factor, in that first generation immigrants are less likely to engage in (serious) criminal offending.”

However, the study did not find any significant difference in the likelihood of receiving life or death sentences based on deportation status.

“The results of this study suggest that deportable inmates receive a slight advantage with respect to sentence length when compared to a group of non-deportable inmates, when matched on a number of important criteria,” the authors noted. “These findings would seem to cast some doubt on both the minority threat and focal concerns perspectives – at least with respect to these data, while providing some support for the idea that judges may sentence non-citizens to shorter sentences with the notion that doing so would not use up additional prison resources, especially when overcrowding is an issue, by reducing the perceived time until deportation.”

The study was based on 23,556 inmates incarcerated between 2008 and June 2009 in a large southern state. The sample included 1.465 deportable offenders aa well as 334 inmates who were sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. The sample was controlled for important legal and extralegal factors, such as whether the offender was convicted of a property, drug or other offense; the severity of the offense; prior incarcerations; guilty or no contest pleas; mandatory sentencing; sex offender status; age, race, ethnicity, marital status and IQ.

The study, “Assessing the impact of deportable status on sentencing outcomes in a sample of state prisoners” was published in the Journal of Crime and Justice.

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