NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Recent Immigrants Less Likely to go to Prison than Natives

"Among native-born men, 1.35 percent were institutionalized in 1980 and 2.16 percent in 1990. By comparison, 0.7 percent of male immigrants were institutionalized in 1980 and 1.49 percent in 1990."


Recent immigrants aren't as likely to go to prison as native-born Americans. Nor are they as likely to be institutionalized as earlier immigrants. Indeed, if natives had the same low probability of being incarcerated as all immigrants, the nation's jails and prisons would have one-third fewer inmates, according to an NBER Working Paper by Kristin Butcher and Anne Piehl.

In Recent Immigrants: Unexpected Implications for Crime and Incarceration (NBER Working Paper No. 6067), they compare institutionalization rates of various groups of the population in the census years 1980 and 1990, focusing on 18-to-40-year-old males, the demographic group most prone to ending up behind bars. In this group, 70 percent of those institutionalized were put there because they have been convicted of a crime, according to 1980 statistics. The remainder are in mental institutions, hospitals, and drug treatment centers.

Earlier research has shown that recent immigrants have poorer labor market experiences than native-born Americans or earlier cohorts of immigrants. A purely economic model of criminal behavior, which sees the likelihood of an individual engaging in criminal behavior as influenced strongly by whether he or she has opportunities for well-paid legal employment, would imply that recent immigrants should be more likely to commit crimes and go to jail than natives. But this study concludes that recent immigrants are less likely to be institutionalized than earlier immigrants or the native-born.

Among native-born men, 1.35 percent were institutionalized in 1980 and 2.16 percent in 1990. By comparison, 0.7 percent of male immigrants were institutionalized in 1980 and 1.49 percent in 1990. To investigate the extent to which differences in the immigrant and native-born populations explain these differences, the authors predict institutionalization rates for immigrants assuming they function like natives. Based solely on the age distributions across the two populations, immigrants should have about the same percentage incarcerated as natives, but they do not. If education, race, and ethnicity of immigrants are taken into account, immigrants should have a much higher institutionalization rate than natives (on the order of 3-4 percent), but they do not.

Low levels of education are strongly associated with a high probability of being institutionalized, but less so for immigrants than natives. In 1990, native-born dropouts were 5.9 percent more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates; for immigrants, the difference was only 1.9 percent. The same is the case for some races and ethnic groups. Black natives are much more likely to be incarcerated than black immigrants. In 1990, native-born blacks were 6.9 percent more likely to be institutionalized than native-born white non-Hispanics; among immigrants, blacks were only 2.9 percent more likely to be incarcerated. Asian immigrants have lower institutionalization rates than white non-Hispanic immigrants.

In further analyses, the authors compare those immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late 1980s to those who arrived in the late 1970s, finding that more recent immigrants are less likely to be institutionalized (relative to natives) than earlier arrivals were after a similar length of stay. Finally, comparing the experience of immigrants over time, they conclude that immigrants assimilate to the higher institutionalization rates of the native born. However, more recent immigrants appear to assimilate less quickly that earlier immigrants. Butcher and Piehl see the possibility of even better news. Since youth involvement in crime is related strongly to the criminality of family members, the lower institutionalization rates of immigrants could persist in lower criminal activity of their children.


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