Unraveling the effect of offender citizenship status on federal sentencing outcomes

Scott E. Wolfe, David C. Pyrooz, Cassia Spohn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


A large body of social science literature has focused on the factors that influence sentencing outcomes within the federal court system. A neglected variable in this line of research is the citizenship status of the offender. Using the United States Sentencing Commission's Monitoring of Federal Criminal Sentences data from 2006, the present study examines the effect of citizenship status on the likelihood of incarceration and the length of the prison sentence. This study extends previous research in three ways: first, by examining citizenship status using post- Booker data; second, exploring the differences between citizens, legal aliens, and illegal aliens rather than comparing all non-citizens to US citizens; and third, examining all offenses rather than only drug offenses. Most importantly, this study partitions the data by citizenship status to determine if the effects of race/ethnicity and other variables (e.g., type of offense and level of education) vary by citizenship status. The results demonstrate that both legal and illegal aliens have a higher probability of incarceration than similarly-situated US citizens, but that the sentences imposed on illegal aliens are shorter than those imposed on citizens. However, different results emerged when the data were partitioned by citizenship status. Judges imposed shorter prison sentences on Latino citizens, but longer prison sentences on Latino illegal aliens. These results are discussed in relation to theoretical explanations and policy implications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)349-362
Number of pages14
JournalSocial Science Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011


  • Citizenship
  • Disparity
  • Federal courts
  • Immigration
  • Sentencing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science


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