by David Wilson
Co-author, The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers
Anti-immigrant forces frequently claim immigrants make up 30 percent of the approximately 200,000 people in the federal prison system, and then use this dramatic number to imply that immigration is a major source of crime in the United States. (See for example "Lou Dobbs Tonight," April 1, 2006, David Leonhardt's criticism in the New York Times, May 30, 2007, and Lou Dobbs' attempts to defend himself on "Democracy Now," December 4, 2007. The actual number is between 26 and 27 percent, according to the Bureau of Prisons. For example, the bureau's website showed 52,788 noncitizen inmates in the system as of Nov. 24, 2007, which is 26.4 percent of federal prisoners. See below for the Nov. 24, 2007 data.)
People rarely stop to ask why immigration opponents cite the statistics for federal prisons rather than those for state and local prisons. After all, the federal system accounts for less than 10 percent of the nation's 2.3 million prisoners, and federal prisoners are much less likely to have been convicted of violent crimes than state inmates--about 9.4 percent of federal convicts were in prison for crimes of violence in 2006, compared to 52.1 percent in state prisons. (See the Justice Department's 2006 report.)
The reason the anti-immigrant forces prefer federal prison statistics is that in fact immigrants make up a low proportion of the state and local prison populations. Immigrants are actually less likely to be incarcerated than people who were born in the United States.
The largest prison population is in the state systems, which held about 1.37 million inmates as of June 2006, according to the US Department of Justice. This included 57,725 noncitizens, a little more than 4.2 percent of the total, even though noncitizens make up almost nine percent of the general population--suggesting that US citizens are twice as likely as immigrants to be imprisoned in state systems.
The situation is probably about the same for local jails, although we have no reliable statistics. If we make a very rough estimate based on the Department of Justice's State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), we could guess that some 25,000 undocumented immigrants are in the local jails at any given time, along with a similar number of documented immigrants. (See my blog entry for April 2, 2008.) This would give us some 50,000 noncitizen inmates out of a local prison population of about 766,000, or 6.5 percent. Even this number, which is probably too high, is again significantly less than noncitizens' share in the general population.
If we combine these numbers for federal, state, and local prison populations, on any given day in 2006 and 2007 noncitizens would account for 7.3 percent of the inmate population at most--about 160,500 inmates out of 2.2 million.
There is an obvious reason, incidentally, for the disproportionate number of immigrants in federal prisons: immigrants are much more likely to be charged with the types of offenses that get people put in federal prisons, notably the offenses that involve border violations, like drug smuggling, gun-running and, of course, violations of the immigration laws. As of November 2007, 53.6 percent of federal inmates were incarcerated for drug offenses; 14.6 percent for crimes relating to weapons, explosives and arson; and 10.4 percent for immigration offenses. But the anti-immigrant forces don't want to talk about this--they just want a statistic that appears to prove that immigrants are more criminal than the native-born.
Quick Facts About the Bureau of Prisons
[This page on the Bureau of Prisons website is updated regularly; the following figures came from the site as of Saturday, 24 November 2007]
Total population: 199,840
Total sentenced population: 181,848
Inmates in BOP facilities: 166,694
Inmates in privately-managed secure facilities (1): 21,249
Inmates in other contract facilities (2): 11,897
1. Includes inmates housed in privately-managed secure facilities under contract with the BOP or with a state or local government that has an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the BOP.
2. Includes inmates housed in community corrections centers, home confinement, jail/short-term detention, contract juveniles, and long-term boarders.
Inmates By Race
White: 112,748 (56.4 %)
Black: 80,232 (40.1 %)
Native American: 3,492 (1.7 %)
Asian: 3,368 (1.7 %)
Hispanic: 62,473 (31.3 %)
Average Inmate Age: 38
United States: 147,052 (73.6 %)
Mexico: 33,830 (16.9 %)
Colombia: 3,095 (1.5 %)
Cuba: 1,651 (0.8 %)
Dominican Republic: 3,135 (1.6 %)
Other/Unknown: 11,077 (5.5 %)
Types of Offenses
Drug Offenses: 98,622 (53.6 %)
Weapons, Explosives, Arson: 26,870 (14.6 %)
Immigration: 19,233 (10.4 %)
Robbery: 9,333 (5.1 %)
Burglary, Larceny, Property Offenses: 6,783 (3.7 %)
Extortion, Fraud, Bribery: 8,172 (4.4 %)
Homicide, Aggravated Assault, and Kidnapping Offenses: 5,589 (3.0 %)
Miscellaneous: 2,069 (1.1 %)
Sex Offenses: 4,997 (2.7 %)
Banking and Insurance, Counterfeit, Embezzlement: 1,006 (0.5 %) Courts or Corrections: 742 (0.4 %)
Continuing Criminal Enterprise: 563 (0.3 %)
National Security: 96 (0.1 %)
* Data calculated for those with offense-specific information available.