Equal Justice

Date01 December 2018
Published date01 December 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Equal Justice: Examining the
Effects of Citizenship,
Documentation Status, and
Country of Origin on Carceral
Punishment Across Federal Districts
Melanie M. Holland
Empirical analysis of the disproportionate application of carceral punishment has traditionally tar-
geted race and class inequality while omitting noncitizens as a systematically disadvantaged popu-
lation within the criminal justice system. Of the limited extant literature on this issue, nearly all have
examined overall incarceration odds while failing to account for prison alternative eligibility, inac-
curately measuring judicial discretion. Likewise, none have disaggregated noncitizens across
nationality, an oversight that implicitly assuming that all noncitizens are equal recipients of dis-
crimination, likely suppressing noncitizen disadvantage. Finally, these studies often fail to include
contextual measures in their analyses. Using data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC)’s
Monitoring of Federal Sentences from 1999 to 2013, this study examines case-, district-, and cross-
level effects of citizenship status, documentation status, and nationality on incarceration odds, prison
alternatives, and sentence length for federal drug offenders. The results of this study support the
hypothesis that noncitizens receive more severe sentencing outcomes than U.S. citizens, Mexican
noncitizens receive more severe outcomes compared to those from other countries, and undo-
cumented noncitizens receive more punitive outcomes, though these findings vary across districts.
However, counter to minority threat theory, noncitizen (offender) populations do not appear to
influence incarceration outcomes for noncitizen offenders in the projected direction.
sentencing, courts/law, inequality and crime, other, race and crime/justice, other, quantitative
methods, other, legal issues
Immigration concerns have yet again reached volatile levels within societal discourse, infiltrating
politics, the media, and even entertainment (Sowards & Pineda, 2013). This modern eruption of
immigration controversy, while analogous to prece ding ones regarding economic, cultural, and
Pennsylvania State University, Altoona, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Melanie M. Holland, Pennsylvania State University, Altoona, PA 16601, USA.
Email: mzh68@psu.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2018, Vol. 43(4) 419-439
ª2017 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817742474
criminogenic themes, has surpassed its predecessors in sheer magnit ude with larger turnouts at
rallies and protests as well as increased media coverage (Sowards & Pineda, 2013). Considering
the ubiquity of immigration discourse, related rhetoric risks influencing attitudes and responses
toward noncitizens throughout various institutions, including the criminal justice system. Unfortu-
nately, courtroom actors do not think within a sociological vacuum but rather are situated within the
context of the social, historical, and cultural and are therefore in jeopardy of inadvertently or
blatantly using carceral punishment as a means of reasserting formal control over noncitizens.
Although the resulting depictions of those entering the country are varied and often competing,
the prevailing immigrant narrative is not a flattering one. Noncitizens are increasingly depicted as a
danger to the economy, national security, and public safety (Citrin, Green, Muste, & Wong, 1997;
Demleitner & Sands, 2002; Stacey, Carbone-Lo´pez, & Rosenfeld, 2011). Among other stereotypes,
noncitizens are often portrayed as inherently criminogenic, frequently associated with drug lords and
mafia kingpins (Vaughn, Salas-Wright, DeLisi, & Maynard, 2014). This association persists in spite
of findings that noncitizens appear to commit far fewer crimes compared to U.S. citizens, either out
of fear of deportation or cultural armamentarium, a concept known as the immigrant paradox
(Vaughn et al., 2014). In actuality, assimilation and acculturation seem to increase, rather than
reduce, crime among foreign-born populations (Alvarez-Rivera, Nobles, & Lersch, 2014). These
often inaccurate narratives of the criminal immigrant promote apprehension and fear while further
increasing punitiveness toward this demographic.
The association between noncitizens and criminality is further perpetuated in common vernacular
referring to undocumented noncitizens as “illegal aliens.” This terminology proliferates crimino-
genic associations while simultaneously “othering” this population. Furthermore, imagery of “the
illegal immigrant” is implicitly, and often unabashedly, applied to all immigrants (Flores, 2003),
neglecting to acknowledge the migration of numerous documented noncitizens. As of 2012, only
3.5%of the U.S. population consisted of unauthorized immigrants, representing only 26%of the
foreign-born population (Passel & Cohn, 2014). Due to the copious application of this label, con-
temporary stereotypes of noncitizens fail to concede important distinctions within the broader social
issue of immigration.
Further contributing to the homogenization of the noncitizen narrative is the extent to which
immigrant has become synonymous with Hispanic, an often misleading association (Chan, 2013).
Focusing solely on Hispanic migration to the United States distorts the unique nuances of population
changes across various ethnic group (Chan, 2013; Morı´n, 2009). In 2010, more than 12%of the
foreign-born population in the United States were from Europe, 53%were of Latin America and
North American decent, 28%were Asian, and almost 5%arrived from other localities (Grieco et al.,
2012). It is essential that subsequent empirical research examining crime and punishment among
noncitizens incorporate ethnicity and country of origin.
Unfortunately, the effects of the current immigrant narrative are not relegated to innocuous
discourse but rather permeate numerous institutions resulting in tangible consequences. Nonciti-
zens are perceived as inherently criminogenic, assumed to be undocumented, and consolidated
into one ethnicity. As a result, they suffer from housing and employment discrimination, elevated
levels of poverty, linguistic profiling, and hypersegregation (Massey, 2007; Vaughn et al., 2014).
The effects of citizenship status have not yet been thoroughly examined within the criminal justice
system. This is not to imply that noncitizens have been entirely omitted from criminological
analysis, but rather that the existing literature seems to suffer from a limitation similar in nature
to that of the existing immigrant narrative: that immigrants are a singularity. In doing so, distinc-
tions across ethnicity and documentation status have been neglected. This study endeavors to
rectify this omission by deconstructing the immigrant narrative in the examination of the effects of
noncitizenship, documentation status, and country of origin on decisions to incarcerate as well as
sentence length outcomes.
420 Criminal Justice Review 43(4)

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