How Many Foreign-Born Immigrants Really Do End up in Jail?
We've got the data.
It’s important to understand how immigrants affect crime in their new countries. However, crime data across countries are hard to come by and even harder to compare as laws vary significantly between jurisdictions, different countries have radically different criminal justice systems, and many countries don’t systematically publish incarceration data that identify the foreign‐born population.
Fortunately, a wonderful new book entitled Does Immigration Increase Crime? By Francesco Fasani, Giovanni Mastrobuoni, Emily G. Owens, and Paolo Pinotti includes a figure that helps tremendously. Figure 1 below is an updated version of their figure 1.7 on page 18 of their book. It shows the foreign‐born share of the population across 20 OECD countries compared to the foreign‐born share of the prison populations in those countries. The prisoner data come from the Centre for Prison Studies and the population data from the OECD. Figure 1 uses the most updated data for both with no other controls.
Figure 1 shows a wide range in foreign‐born shares of the incarcerated population and shares of the total population. In 13 of the 20 OECD countries listed, the foreign‐born share of prisoners is higher than their share of the population – often multiple‐times higher. This is evidence that the foreign‐born population of those countries has a disproportionately higher crime rate. In seven OECD countries, the foreign‐born share of the prison population is below their share of the total population, suggesting that they have a disproportionately lower crime rate.
Figure 2 is the difference between the foreign‐born share of the prison population and the foreign‐born share of the total population. Bars that are above zero show that foreign‐born people have a higher incarceration share than their share of the population. Bars that are below zero show that the foreign‐born have an incarceration share below their share of the population.
Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand all have foreign‐born shares of their prison populations that are below their shares of the total population.
If the 20 OECD countries analyzed here were considered as a single country, the foreign‐born share of the total population would be 13.5 percent and the foreign‐born share of the prison population would be 8.2 percent. That result is driven by the United States, which accounts for 40 percent of the total population of those 20 countries, 40 percent of the foreign‐born population, 80 percent of the prisoners, and a very low foreign‐born incarceration rate.
My biggest concern with these numbers is data quality. The Centre for Prison Studies gathers the data from multiple different sources in different countries, so I can’t verify whether they are of good quality. Additionally, the share of the population incarcerated is just one measure of criminality and should be considered alongside others. Regardless, the figures above, inspired by Does Immigration Increase Crime?, shed some light on this important topic.
This article by Alex Nowrasteh originally appeared in the CATO at Liberty blog in 2020.