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How Much Crime Do Illegal Immigrants Commit?

You probably never heard of SCAAP, the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program.  But I expect it will be showing up in the news a lot pretty soon.

This is what it does:

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, administers SCAAP, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). SCAAP provides federal payments to states and localities that incurred correctional officer salary costs for incarcerating undocumented criminal aliens who have at least one felony or two misdemeanor convictions for violations of state or local law, and who are incarcerated for at least 4 consecutive days during the reporting period.

Translation: state and local jurisdictions are compensated by the Federal Government for expenses incurred for holding criminal aliens. Why do the Feds pay? To quote from a letter signed by California’s Congressional delegation to key members of the House Appropriations Committee a few years ago:

As you know, SCAAP is a grant program that reimburses states and local governments for the cost of incarcerating undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes. By law, the federal government is ultimately responsible for immigration enforcement, including the incarceration of undocumented criminal offenders. When this is not possible, the law requires the federal government to compensate state and local governments for their incarceration costs.

So… the Federal Government is responsible for immigration enforcement, which is to say (in this context), preventing illegal immigration. Therefore, if a non-immigration related crime is committed by someone the Feds failed to keep out of the country, the Feds compensates state and local law enforcement.

The number of prisoners for which the SCAAP program provides compensation are hard to find. It is almost as if those figures are kept deliberately opaque. However, according to the General Accounting Office:

The number of criminal aliens in federal prisons in fiscal year 2010 was about 55,000, and the number of SCAAP criminal alien incarcerations in state prison systems and local jails was about 296,000 in fiscal year 2009 (the most recent data available), and the majority were from Mexico.

The same GAO document tells us that there were about 10.8 million aliens with undocumented status in the US in 2009. 296,000 is 2.74% of 10.8 million, so about 2.74% of the aliens with undocumented status were incarcerated in the state prison system and local jails that year.

How does that compare to the population at large? According to Appendix Table 2 of this Bureau of Justice Statistics report, in 2009, the state prison population was 1,319,426 and the local jail population was 767,620 for a total of 2,087,046.

The US non-institutional population at the time was about 301,500,000, so add in the 2 million for state and local prisoners, and add in about 205K Federal prisoners, and you have a US population of about 303,705,000.

2 million and change divided by 303.7 million comes to less than 7 tenths of a percent of the US population ending up in state and local prisons. That is well under the 2.7% for the undocumented aliens. Or…illegal immigrants are around four times more likely to be imprisoned in a state or local jurisdiction than the population as a whole. (Note that this ratio is probably even more lopsided since SCAAP only applies to aliens with at least four consecutive days of time served.)

Now, illegal immigrants having 4x everyone else’s crime rate is a far cry from the often repeated claim that “illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native born.” Thoroughly contradicting popular wisdom makes for an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. So let’s see if we can find some additional support for the claim.

As luck would have, it isn’t just state and local jurisdictions that imprison people. The Federal government does it too. The 2015 US Sentencing Commission Report states that:

A majority of federal offenders are United States citizens (58.5%). Most non-citizen offenders committed an immigration offense (66.0%).

So let’s assume that those who committed an immigration offense are innocent of any other offense, and disregard them completely.

Endnote 13 of the same document tells us:

Non-citizens primarily are convicted of immigration crimes. Non-citizens were the offenders in only 14.1 percent of all other federal crimes in fiscal year 2015.

According to Pew Research undocumented aliens accounted for about 3.5% of the total population in 2015.

So 3.5% of the population represents 14.1% of Federal prisoners incarcerated for non-immigration related crimes. That is to say, illegal immigrants were four times as likely to be in a Federal prison for a non-immigration related crime as the rest of the population in 2015, which is about the same proportion we see in state and local jurisdictions in 2009. Coincidence?

You don’t have to like something for it to be true. But the relative crime rates of the illegal population are what they are. Now perhaps you don’t think crime rates matter to the illegal immigration debate. Fine. That’s a topic for another day.

What I think is more topical, though, is that sooner or later the Trump administration is going to figure out that SCAAP exists, that it is part of the Federal Budget, and that it can be used as a cudgel against the sanctuary movement. And frankly, stopped clocks being right twice a day and all, they will have a point when they do so.

Demanding compensation from the Feds’ for their failure to enforce a law while simultaneously preventing the Feds from doing so seems very squirrelly. I am no attorney, but it seems like the sort of argument even the team Trump has put together might be able to win in court.

Corrections (May 29, 6:45 AM PST)

1. Reader Longtooth notes that the GAO link mentioned in the post is severed. This one works as of this writing.
2. Reader Longtooth also notes that I missed something in that document – not all criminal aliens are in the SCAAP program. For more detail, see the comments, but, about two-thirds of the criminal aliens are either known to be in this country illegally, or “unknown.” The latter group is believed by the states to be in this country illegally, and eligible for SCAAP funding. As far as I can tell, they are essentially aliens who cannot be shown to be in the country legally but have not, at the time they were arrested, come to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. I think this needs a further look, but based on various statements in the GAO report, I now believe that illegal aliens are not 4X more likely to end up in state and local jails, but rather somewhere between a bit more than one and a bit less than 3 times more likely.

Leaving aside the question of crime rates among the undocumented, there is the issue that the SCAAP program deals involves taxpayer dollars. This information should be readily available, whether from the Justice Department or the General Accounting Office.

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