Post by Michael T. Light, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Purdue University. This post is the sixth installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Migration, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice organised by Ana Aliverti.

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As the number of foreign prisoners has increased dramatically across western countries―in both absolute and relative terms―an increasing amount of scholarship has been focused on the intersections of immigration and crime control. While this body of work has shown impressive theoretical insight and empirical breadth, important gaps remain in our understanding of how immigrants fare in criminal courts. This post attempts to briefly map out several fruitful lines of future research to address these gaps. Collectively, the three areas outlined below represent promising avenues for future research on criminal adjudication in an age of migration.

1. International Comparative Research. Much of the research on the legal treatment of foreigners has either focused on case studies, or it’s concentrated in edited volumes. These approaches offer valuable insights. The case study provides an opportunity for an in-depth investigation into the legal treatment of immigrants in certain key countries, and edited volumes collectively cover a wide array of countries. However, neither approach offers a rigorous comparative investigation into criminal case processing for foreign offenders across diverse countries and legal systems. Such investigations are key to advancing our understanding of the focal policies and practices that have led to the widespread trend of immigrant incarceration in recent decades, and potential solutions for ensuring everyone receives equal treatment under the law. This leads to my second point.

2. Focus on the Mechanisms. Why has the incarceration of foreigners increased so much? No doubt, a major contributing factor is the policy shift in how countries handle immigration violations. In recent decades, many Western countries have increasingly used the tools of the criminal justice system to enforce immigration laws. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that this was the only reason immigrant incarceration has increased, as many of the immigrants brought into court are charged with violations that are applicable to both citizens and non-citizens alike. For example, the US Sentencing Commission reports that over 20% of non-citizen offenders in federal courts were convicted of drug violations in 2012. This suggests that even when citizens and non-citizens are adjudicated for similar crimes, they may not receive equal treatment. Indeed, much of my work in the US and Germany converge on this general finding―non-citizens are more likely to receive prison terms at sentencing compared to similarly situated citizen offenders.

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While this finding is relatively robust, we’re only beginning to understand the mechanisms through which citizenship confers legal advantages in criminal courts. As with most empirical analyses, it’s easier to document differences than to explain why we observe them. As such, future research on national membership and legal inequality would do well to adopt mixed-methods approaches which combine statistical and qualitative methods. Such an approach would likely merge official case processing data with interviews with key criminal justice actors to identify the direct and indirect mechanisms and processes linking citizenship to punishment considerations.

3. What about After Prison? While understanding the causes of immigrant incarceration are profoundly important, there needs to be an equally concerted emphasis on understanding the consequences of incarceration for immigrants and their families. Mounting evidence suggests the legal system plays a fundamental role in shaping paths of immigrant incorporation which greatly influence immigrants’ life chances. With over 230 million international migrants globally, understanding the legal consequences of citizenship is crucial to our understanding of modern day assimilation processes. With this in mind, future research would do well to consider how the disadvantages of incarceration interact with the structural and symbolic barriers that non-citizens already encounter. The problems faced by inmates upon release from prison are well documented―worse health functioning, economic hardship, political marginalization, etc. Yet considerably less is known about the unique challenges of immigrants upon release from prison. For example, how does a prison record in a foreign country affect the job prospects of immigrants? How does deportation after incarceration affect the life chances of the children left in the wake? Investigating the broader scope of the immigration-incarceration nexus is needed for us to fully grasp the role of the prison in modern day societies where international migration is becoming increasingly common.

Themed Week on Migration, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Light, M.T. (2015) Mapping out a (Brief) Research Agenda for Border Criminology. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/research-agenda-for-border-criminology/ (Accessed [date]).