A study of Florida corrections records has found that immigrants convicted of crimes re-offend at a rate one-third lower than native-born Americans.
The study, published in Justice Quarterly this month, tracked and compared recidivism rates for foreign-born individuals and nonimmigrant individuals over a seven-year period between 2004-2011—using a sample of 192,556 former inmates.
In that period, 19 percent of immigrant offenders were reconvicted for a felony offense within three years of their release, compared to 32 percent for non-immigrant offenders.
The findings provided additional reasons to dispute the “heated rhetoric” of today’s immigration debate, which casts immigrants— and particularly undocumented immigrants—as threats to public safety, wrote the study’s authors, Javier Ramos and Marin R. Wenger of the College of Criminal Justice at Florida State University.
The study did not distinguish between legal immigrants and undocumented.
Other research has already shown that immigrants in general commit less crimes than native-born Americans, and are arrested and incarcerated at lower rates, despite suggestions to the contrary, the authors wrote.
But the supposed threat posed by those immigrants who do commit crimes is also “largely overstated,” they added.
“We find…they pose a smaller risk to the community than the native born,” the study said.
“Policymakers and criminal justice agents should ignore the heated rhetoric directed toward foreign-born individuals and instead focus resources on groups for which reductions in recidivism would translate into safer communities.”
Although the study just focused on Florida, the authors implied that their findings could be true for other states with high concentrations of foreign-born individuals—noting that the particular circumstances of immigrant communities likely served as barriers to re-offending.
“The protective and pro-social nature of immigrant communities may provide a more socially and economically supportive environment for immigrant ex-inmates than the communities that native-born ex-inmates return to,” they wrote.
They suggested, for example, that many immigrant households were intact, relatively stable family units with steady jobs.
Another possible factor was deterrence: the fear that re-offending might increase the risk of deportation, particularly for those who are undocumented.
Nevertheless, they pointed out, both factors were hard to test empirically.
Just as impactful, they argued, was the nature of immigrant communities themselves. Unlike many inner-city and at-risk neighborhoods to which most of the 700,000 inmates released each year return, immigrant communities are much smaller, more cohesive and supportive, and have fewer ex-prisoners living there.
That makes them less likely to have the kind of “criminogenic” subculture that often contributes to recidivism, the study said.
The authors said more research was necessary, but added that their findings should persuade policymakers to shift federal and state priorities away from fighting a wave of immigrant crime that doesn’t exist.
“In the current climate of scarce resources for criminal justice agencies and actors, greater attention should be paid to those most likely to reoffend,” they said.