Many critics of marijuana legalization raise concerns that marijuana dispensaries might serve as loci for increased local criminal activity. Now there is empirical evidence that just the opposite occurs.
A new study reported in the September issue of Regional Science and Urban Economics examined local crime rate data from 2013 through 2016 in Denver, Colorado, where legal cannabis sales to adults began in 2014. The researchers reported:
The results imply that an additional dispensary in a neighborhood leads to a reduction of 17 crimes per month per 10,000 residents, which corresponds to roughly a 19 percent decline relative to the average crime rate over the sample period. Reductions in crime are highly localized, with no evidence of spillover benefits to adjacent neighborhoods.
The study found that the majority of the crimes reduced were of a nonviolent nature.There were no changes in the number of cannabis-related crimes near dispensaries, but there was a decrease in the number of crimes related to methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. The authors speculated that this may be in part due to the increased presence of law enforcement near dispensaries serving as a deterrent to criminal activity.
The authors stated they did “not find increases in marijuana crimes such as cultivation, possession, or sales nearby,” and no increase in crimes associated with marijuana intoxication, “since there is essentially no change in the number of crimes with marijuana as a ‘contributing factor’ near locations that gain dispensaries.”
A 2017 study in Preventive Medicine with a more limited time range looked at crime rates in South Los Angeles, examining local crime rates in neighborhoods surrounding medical marijuana dispensaries (MMDs), tobacco shops, and alcohol retailers, from January through December 2014. The researchers found no increase in crime rates related to the presence of medical marijuana dispensaries, but an increase in crime surrounding tobacco and alcohol outlets:
Results indicated that mean property and violent crime rates within 100-foot buffers of tobacco shops and alcohol outlets—but not MMDs—substantially exceeded community-wide mean crime rates and rates around grocery/convenience stores (i.e., comparison properties licensed to sell both alcohol and tobacco).
While these studies should help alleviate concerns raised by marijuana prohibitionists about the effect that legalization may have on local crime, similar arguments are used by those who oppose the creation of Safe Injection Facilities for IV drug users. As I have written here, SIFs have been working to reduce overdoses and the spread of disease since the 1980s in more than 120 cities in Europe, Canada and Australia, and there is an “underground” SIF functioning in the US illegally since 2014. Federal law prohibits Safe Injection Facilities in this country, and the Department of Justice is stifling efforts to establish them in Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and New York City.
Among concerns raised by opponents is that they will be a magnet for IV drug users, creating a visual disturbance to neighborhood residents. The counter-argument is that SIFs will actually bring the drug users in off the streets, letting them use their drugs out of the view of young impressionable children and other nearby residents, and will reduce the presence of used needles on the streets and sidewalks.
Another concern is that SIFs may be loci for criminal activity. But, as in the case of marijuana dispensaries, those concerns, while understandable, are not borne out by the evidence. A 2017 systematic review by Canadian researchers reported in Current HIV/AIDS Reports found Supervised Injection Facilities were “associated with improvements in public order without increasing drug-related crime.”
The takeaway from all of this is that bringing drug use out of the darkness of the underground reduces harms to those who don’t engage in drug use as well as those who do.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) just announced that they have apprehended 787,161 people from the beginning of fiscal year (FY) 2019 through to the end of May 2019. CBP apprehended 144, 278 people in May alone, marking the third month in a row that more than 100,000 people have been apprehended. Relative to the end of May in FY2018, apprehensions this year are up 178 percent. Although the number of apprehensions is rising, the number of criminal aliens encountered by CBP is lower than in previous years.
CBP identifies criminal aliens as those who have been convicted of crimes here or abroad if the conviction is for conduct which is also criminal in the United States. From the beginning of FY 2015 through the end of May 2019, the absolute number and percent of criminal aliens encountered by CBP, which includes Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations, have fallen in every year. In 2015, about 7.49 percent of all CBP apprehensions were criminal aliens or had warrants or wants out for their arrests (Figure 1). For FY 2019 through the end of May, only about 2 percent of people apprehended by CBP were criminal aliens or had warrants or wants out for their arrests. Some of those people arrested for warrants or wants are U.S. citizens, so these numbers exaggerate the extent of criminal arrests at the border.
The absolute number of criminal aliens apprehended is also dropping. If the number of criminal aliens apprehended continues to decline apace for FY 2019, the absolute number will be also about 25 percent below the total number apprehended in 2015.
From FY 2015 to FY 2019, the percentage of those apprehended by CBP who were non-criminals and without warrants or wants rose from 92.5 percent to 98 percent while the percentage who were convicted criminals fell from 5.9 percent to 1.5 percent (Figure 1). In absolute numbers, criminal aliens have also declined from 32,479 arrests in FY 2015 to 11,483 through the first eight months of FY 2019. If the trend of criminal alien apprehensions continues for the rest of FY2019, there will be about 15,272 by the end of FY2019 – well below the 20,486 recorded in FY2018.
One counter-argument against this finding is that Border Patrol agents are capturing fewer criminals. Those agents are now assigned to processing asylum claims, which means that fewer are patrolling the border and more criminal aliens are evading detection, which leads to the theory that the falling number of criminal aliens could arise from a lack of detection rather than the flow being less crime-prone. The number of single adults apprehended in recent years is evidence against that theory. They are most likely to be criminals or have warrants out for their arrests, but the number is roughly steady over the FY2015-FY2019 period even though the number of criminals encountered is falling. By the end of this fiscal year, their numbers should be at their highest level since FY2015 if the trends continue, but the criminal arrests will be far below the high in FY2015. This isn’t a slam dunk response but merely evidence against that theory.
The most consistent argument wielded in support of closing the border, harsher border security methods, or restricting asylum is that those being apprehended are criminals who pose a serious threat to Americans. Based on data supplied by CBP, the absolute number of criminal aliens or those with warrants or wants and their proportion of all apprehensions along the border are lower in FY 2019 than in previous years.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) just announced that they have apprehended 531,711 people so far during the fiscal year (FY) 2019. CBP apprehended 109,144 people in April alone, marking the second month in a row that more than 100,000 people have been apprehended. Relative to the end of April in FY 2018, apprehensions this year are up 84 percent and the number is more than double just for the month of April relative to last April. Although the number of apprehensions is rising, the number of criminal aliens encountered by CBP is continuing to drop.
CBP defines criminal aliens as those who have been convicted of crimes here or abroad if the conviction is for conduct which is also a crime in the United States. From the beginning of FY 2015 through the end of April 2019, the absolute number and percent of criminal aliens encountered by CBP, which includes Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations, have fallen in every year. In 2015, about 4.9 percent of all CBP apprehensions were criminal aliens. For FY 2019 through the end of April, only about 1.9 percent of people apprehended by CBP were criminal aliens.
The absolute number of criminal aliens apprehended is also dropping. If the number of criminal aliens apprehended continues to decline apace for FY 2019, the absolute number will be also about 35 percent below the total number apprehended in 2015. To put that in perspective, CBP has already apprehended about 87,000 more people so far in FY 2019 than in all of FY 2015.
From FY 2015 to FY 2019, the percentage of those apprehended by CBP who were non-criminals rose from 95.1 percent to 98.1 percent while the percentage who were criminals fell from 4.9 percent to 1.9 percent (Figure 1). In absolute numbers, criminal aliens have also declined from 26,932 apprehensions in FY 2015 to 10,173 through the first seven months of FY 2019. If the trend of criminal alien apprehensions continues for the rest of FY2019, there will be about 17,439 by the end of this FY – well below the 20,486 recorded in 2018.
The most persistent argument in support of closing the border, harsher border security methods, or restricting asylum is that those being apprehended are criminals who pose a serious threat to Americans. Based on data supplied by CBP, the absolute number of criminal aliens and their proportion of all apprehensions along the border are lower in FY 2019 than in previous years. Furthermore, these numbers provide evidence that the current surge of Central American women and children is better from an American security perspective than a large surge of single men. Although the current immigration issues on the border present challenges, they do not present serious criminal challenges.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently released a report on immigrants incarcerated in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and as pretrial detainees by the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS). The report offers some comments on state and local incarceration of non-citizens, but no systematic information. BOP and USMS are both agencies within the DOJ, so it is simpler to look at the numbers for the DOJ altogether.
The DHS and DOJ are two agencies charged with enforcing immigration laws and incarcerating those who violate them, so it is unsurprising that a large percentage of those incarcerated in federal prisons are there for violating immigration offenses. According to the report, about 19 percent of those incarcerated in the BOP or held by the USMS are known or suspected illegal immigrants and about 6 percent are legal non-citizens. The remaining 75 percent are U.S. citizens, but some unknown percentage of them are likely immigrants too. Non-citizens are about 7 percent of the entire U.S. population so they are overrepresented in federal prison.
The report breaks down the primary offenses that non-citizens are incarcerated or held for in federal custody. The most common primary offense was immigration at 38 percent, followed by drug offenses at 37 percent. Other crimes comprise the remaining 25 percent. The report does not show the number of primary offenses committed by illegal immigrants. Through the 3rd quarter of 2018, about 33.7 percent of new offenders were sentenced for immigration offenses according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Turns out that non-citizens are more likely to be sentenced for immigration offenses, which is not surprising.
More importantly, the federal prison population and those held by the USMS are not representative of incarcerated populations nationwide, so excluding them from the report means that it sheds little light on nationwide incarcerations by nativity, legal status, or type of crime. Of the roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated in 2018, only about 8.3 percent were in federal prisons or held by USMS while the rest are in state and local facilities.
Federal crimes are also vastly different from state crimes, so the criminals incarcerated in the federal system are very different from those on the state level. Through the 3rd quarter of 2018, 50,929 people were sentenced to federal prison for federal crimes – 33.7 percent for immigration crimes. Those immigration convictions comprised 100 percent of the convictions for immigration crimes in the United States in 2018 through the 3rd quarter. By contrast, there were only 94 federal convictions for murder or manslaughter during the same time. Although the data for murders in 2018 are not released yet, those federal murder convictions will likely account for less than 1 percent of all murders nationwide if past years are any guide. For instance, if Mollie Tibbets accused killer is convicted then he’ll be in state prison and not counted in the federal homicide conviction statistics.
It’s important to understand the number of crimes caused by illegal immigrants, their criminal conviction rates, and their incarceration rates. But doing so requires examining state-level data in addition to federal data so looking at only the latter produces a non-representative and inaccurate picture of the problem. Based on the limited evidence that we have, illegal immigrants are less crime-prone than native-born Americans but more crime-prone than legal immigrants.
Customs and Border Protection just announced that Border Patrol has apprehended 364,941 people from the beginning of fiscal year 2019 through to the end of March 2019. Border Patrol apprehensions this FY rose by 34 percent in the month of March. Although the number of apprehensions is rising, the proportion of all apprehensions who are criminal aliens is dropping, in a trend that I wrote about earlier this month. Furthermore, the absolute number of criminal aliens arrested by the end of FY 2019 will be below the number arrested in any year since CBP began publishing data.
Border Patrol identifies criminal aliens as those who have been convicted of crimes here or abroad if the conviction is for conduct which is also criminal in the United States. From the beginning of FY 2015 through the end of March 2019, the absolute number and percent of criminal aliens arrested by Border Patrol have fallen in every year. In 2015, about 5.7 percent of all Border Patrol apprehensions were criminal aliens. For the beginning of FY 2019 through the end of March, only about 0.7 percent of people apprehended by Border Patrol were criminal aliens. If the number of criminal aliens apprehensions continues apace for FY 2019, the absolute number will be about 75 percent below the number apprehended in FY 2015.
From February 2019 to March 2019, the total annual number of Border Patrol apprehensions climbed by 34 percent while the total number of criminal alien annual apprehensions rose by only 24 percent. In other words, the number of non-criminal apprehensions is rising much faster than the number of criminal aliens apprehended. As the flow grows, it is becoming less criminal. Only 0.5 percent of those apprehended in March were criminal aliens compared to 0.7 percent from October 2018 through February 2019.
From 2015 to FY 2019, the percentage of those apprehended by Border Patrol who were non-criminals rose from 94.3 percent to 99.3 percent while the percentage who were criminals fell from 5.7 percent to 0.7 percent (Figure 1). In absolute numbers, criminal aliens have also declined from 19,117 apprehensions in 2015 to 2,513 through half of FY 2019. If the trend of criminal alien apprehensions continues for the rest of FY 2019, there will be just over 5,000 by the end of this FY – well below the 6,698 recorded in 2018.
Non-Criminal and Criminal Aliens
Source: Customs and Border Protection.
The most consistent argument wielded in support of closing the border or harsher border security is that those being apprehended are dangerous criminals. Based on data supplied by Border Patrol, the absolute number of criminal aliens and their proportion of all apprehensions along the border are lower in FY 2019 than in previous years. While the government has an important role in keep criminal aliens out of the United States, the current situation along the border shows that Border Patrol has a better handle on crime than at any time in the recent past.
They do for younger workers and property crimes, finds a new paper by Zachary S. Fone, Joseph J. Sabia and Resul Cesur.
Back in 2016, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) claimed raising the minimum wage to $12 per hour could prevent up to half a million crimes annually. The basic idea was simple: there is good evidence criminal behavior is negatively related to wages. The CEA thought raising the minimum wage would raise the opportunity cost of low-paid workers engaging in crime.
Implicitly they were saying this crime-reduction effect would dominate any impact of job losses or hour reductions leading to more property crime, for economic reasons, or violent crime, for despair-related reasons. But this new paper suggests the CEA’s intuition on the balance of the effects was wrong, for younger workers especially.
The economists use three large crime datasets over a two-decade period to undertake regression analysis of the effect of minimum wages on different crime rates. They control for policing characteristics, crime policy, demographics, health and social welfare policies, minimum high school dropout ages and government lifestyles regulation. Doing so presents robust evidence that minimum wage hikes do not reduce crime. In fact, they increase property crime arrests among 16-24 year olds – the group for whom the minimum wage is most likely to bite.
Their regressions find little evidence minimum wage hikes affect violent or drug crime, or net crime among older individuals. But the impact on young people is positive and strongest when the minimum wage hikes are larger. Digging deeper, they find that the property crimes spike is driven larcenies rather than burglaries, motor vehicle theft or arson. The results are strongest for counties with populations over 100,000 and are likely driven by the traditional labor demand impact of minimum wage hikes (fewer jobs or reduced hours).
The results they obtain of the crime responsiveness to minimum wage hikes implies that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage between 1998 and 2016 led to nearly 80,000 additional property crimes committed by 16-to-24 year olds. This would imply that implementing the $15 per hour Raise The Wage Act today could generate another 410,000 property crimes.
Whether illegal immigrants bring a significant amount of crime to the United States is one of the most important questions to answer in the debate over immigration policy. President Trump also seems to think so as he launched his campaign in 2015 with the now infamous quote: “[Mexican illegal immigrants] are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” From executive orders to major talking points to the President’s speeches, which Vox reporter Dara Lind has aptly described as “immigrants are coming over the border to kill you,” Trump is interested in this important topic.
It is difficult to know whether illegal immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans are. All immigrants have a lower criminal incarceration rate and there are lower crime rates in the neighborhoods where they live, according to the near-unanimous findings of the peer-reviewed evidence. Since 1911, large nationwide federal immigration commissions have asked whether immigrants are more crime-prone than native-born Americans and each one of them answered no, even when the rest of their reports unjustifiably blamed immigrants for virtually every problem in the United States. From the 1911 Immigration Commission, also known as the Dillingham Commission, to the 1931 Wickersham Commission, and 1994’s Barbara Jordan Commission, each has reported that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
That research combines legal and illegal immigrants to calculate a crime rate for all immigrants, but the modern debate is over the crime rates of illegal immigrants. Most people seem to accept that legal immigrants have lower crime rates than natives. Measuring illegal immigrant crime rates is challenging for several reasons. First, the American Community Survey does not ask which inmates in adult correctional facilities are illegal immigrants. Second, federal data on the number of illegal immigrants incarcerated on the state and local level is recorded through the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), which is a combination of stocks and flows that is incomparable to any other measure of inmates. Third, 49 states do not record the immigration statuses of those in prison or convicted. Until recently, these data limitations allowed pundits to say anything about illegal immigrant crime without fear of being fact-checked.
Cato scholars have since published numerous Immigration Research and Policy Briefs to shed light on this topic. Michelangelo Landgrave, a doctoral student in political science at the University of California, Riverside, and I released a paper today that estimates that illegal immigrant incarceration rates are about half those of native-born Americans in 2017. In the same year, legal immigrant incarceration rates are then again half those of illegal immigrants. Those results are similar to what Landgrave and I published for the years 2014 and 2016. We estimated illegal immigrant incarceration rates by using the same residual method that demographers use to estimate the number of illegal immigrants in the United States, only we also applied that method to the prison population. We used the same method to also find that the incarceration rate for young illegal immigrants brought here as children and theoretically eligible for deferred action is slightly below those of native-born Americans.
The second strand of research from Cato looks at criminal conviction rates by immigration status in the state of Texas. Unlike every other state, Texas keeps track of the immigration statuses of convicted criminals and the crimes that they committed. Texas is a wonderful state to study because it borders Mexico, has a large illegal immigrant population, is a politically conservative state governed by Republicans, had no jurisdictions that limited its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement in 2015, and it has a law and order reputation for strictly enforcing criminal laws. If anything, Texas is more serious about enforcing laws against illegal immigrant criminals than other states. But even here, illegal immigrant conviction rates are about half those of native-born Americans – without any controls for age, education, ethnicity, or any other characteristic. The illegal immigrant conviction rates for homicide, larceny, and sex crimes are also below those of native-born Americans. The criminal conviction rates for legal immigrants are the lowest of all.
The Texas research is consistent with the finding that crime along the Mexican border is much lower than in the rest of the country, homicide rates in Mexican states bordering the United States are not correlated with homicide rates here, El Paso’s border fence did not lower crime, Texas criminal conviction rates remain low (but not as low) when recidivism is factored in, and that police clearance rates are not lower in states with many illegal immigrants – which means that they don’t escape conviction by leaving the country after committing crimes.
SCAAP is a flawed source of data for several reasons, but even it shows that illegal immigrants have lower incarceration rates than native-born Americans. Based on estimates of the non-citizen population going back to 1955, they are less likely to be arrested for homicide. Federal incarcerations and convictions reveal little here because they represent less than 8 percent of all incarcerations and, worse still, are not representative of nation-wide crime trends. In 2016, for instance, there were only 85 federal convictions for murder out of a nationwide total of 17,785 murder convictions that year, comprising less than 0.5 percent of all murders. Government immigration enforcement programs like E-Verify may even raise crime rates.
Cato scholars aren’t the only folks investigating illegal immigration and crime. Sociologists Michael Light and Ty Miller found that a higher illegal immigrant population does not increase violent crime rates. Those two researchers then teamed up with Purdue sociologist Bryan C. Kelly to look at how higher illegal immigrant populations affected drug arrests, drug overdose deaths, and DUI arrests. They found large and significantly associated reductions in drug arrests, drug overdose deaths, and DUI arrests with no significant relationship between increased illegal immigration and DUI deaths.
None of what I wrote above will console a victim of illegal immigrant crime – and it shouldn’t. To those victims and their loved ones, their pain is not diminished by knowing how unlikely it was to happen to them. There will be criminals in any large group of people and there are some infuriating and shocking anecdotes. The public seems to understand that the actions of a comparatively small number of illegal immigrants do not mean that they are more crime-prone than native-born Americans – which is what matters the most when debating public policy. A 2016 Pew poll found that only 27 percent of Americans thought that illegal immigrants were more likely to commit serious crimes than native-born Americans, while 67 percent said less likely. Among Republicans, 42 percent said that illegal immigrants are more likely to commit serious crimes and 52 percent said less likely. A Quinnipiac poll in 2018 revealed that only 17 percent of voters thought that illegal immigrants committed more crimes than native-born Americans and 72 percent of voters thought that illegal immigrants committed less crime.
Part of the reason why native-born Americans might not be concerned as much with illegal immigrant crime overall, but very concerned in some specific cases, is that most illegal immigrant criminals probably victimize other illegal immigrants. Of the homicides in 2015 where the relationship between the murderer and the victim is known, about 80 percent of murderers knew their victims. The relationship between victim and murderer could be even higher for illegal immigrants. Americans tend to care more when native-born Americans are murdered by illegal immigrants than when an illegal immigrant murders another illegal immigrant.
The debate over illegal immigration and criminality will likely continue until much better data are available across the United States. Based on the research above, I’m fairly confident that illegal immigrants are less likely to be criminals than native-born Americans. On the overall issue of immigration and crime, the evidence is so one-sided that even Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, has said that, “A lot of data does suggest immigrants are less likely to be involved in crime.” This issue will be resolved when states and localities keep better records of the immigration statuses of people convicted in their states – just like Texas does. The crime data are so complicated and inconsistently kept that even the government misinterprets its own data. The government should resolve these data issues.