Selected Works

      • Michael T. Light, Jason Robey and Jungmyung Kim. 2023. “Noncitizen Justice: The Criminal Case Processing of non-U.S. Citizens in Texas and California.” American Journal of Sociology 129: 162-226.

        Immigration enforcement is increasingly dependent on local criminal justice authorities, and yet basic questions on the criminal case processing of non-U.S. citizens (documented or undocumented) in state and local jurisdictions remain unanswered. Leveraging uniquely rich case information on all felony arrests in California and Texas between 2006 and 2018, this article provides a detailed examination of the legal treatment of non-U.S. citizens from booking through sentencing. In both states, we find that non-U.S. citizens arrested for the same crime and with the same prior record are significantly more likely to be convicted and incarcerated than U.S. citizens. These citizenship gaps often exceed the observed disparities between white and minority defendants, but the results were not identical in both states. In line with the more rigid views towards migrant criminality in Texas, the case processing of non-U.S. citizens is notably more severe there than in California at nearly every key decision point. These findings suggest that even in local criminal justice settings, citizenship is a unique and consequential axis of contemporary legal inequality.

      • Jason Robey, Michael Massoglia and Michael T. Light. 2023. “A Generational Shift: Race and the Declining Lifetime Risk of Incarceration.” Demography.

        Mass incarceration fundamentally altered the life course for a generation of American men. But sustained declines in imprisonment in recent years raise questions about how incarceration is shaping current generations. Our paper makes three primary contributions to understanding the contemporary landscape of incarceration in the United States. First, we assess the scope of decarceration. Between 1999 and 2019, there was a 44% drop in the black male incarceration rate and notable declines in black male imprisonment were evident in all 50 states. Second, our life table analysis demonstrates marked declines in the lifetime risks of incarceration. For black men, the lifetime risk of incarceration declined by nearly half since 1999. We estimate less than 1 in 5 black men born in 2001 will be imprisoned, compared to 1 in 3 for the 1981 birth cohort. Third, decarceration has shifted the institutional experiences of young adulthood. In 2009, young black men were much more likely to experience prison than college graduation. Ten years later this trend had reversed – black men were more likely to graduate college than go to prison. Combined, these results suggest that the prison has played a smaller role in the institutional landscape for the most recent generation.

      • Light, Michael T. 2022. “The Declining Significance of Race in Criminal Sentencing: Evidence from US Federal Courts.” Social Forces 100: 1110-1141.   

        Racial inequality in sentencing has decreased substantially over the last decade. In 2009, the average sentencing difference between black and white defendants in federal court was nearly 3 yrs. By 2018, this difference was less than 6 mos. Among drug offenders over this same period, the black–white gap went from 47 mos. down to zero. Yet, despite the fact that racial inequality in the legal system remains at the fore of sociological discourse, these developments remain conspicuously under-evaluated and the underlying processes driving these changes remain unknown. This article fills this gap by applying longitudinal decomposition methods to US District Court data between 2009 and 2018. Three notable findings emerge. First, the declining racial gap was driven, in equal parts, by decreasing black sentences and increasing white sentences. Second, black and white sentences became more equal almost entirely due to changes in observable case characteristics and not due to changes in the treatment of offenders. Third, shifts in the prosecutorial use of mandatory minimums played a critical role in decreasing black–white sentencing inequality.

      • Light, Michael T and Hilde Wermink. 2021. “The Criminal Case Processing of Foreign Nationals in the Netherlands.” European Sociological Review 37: 104-120.   

        Foreign nationals are increasingly encountering the criminal justice institutions of many European countries. Yet, basic questions about how they are punished within these institutions, particularly at the early stages of case processing, remain unanswered. This article combines linked case information from arrest through sentencing with interviews of Dutch judges and prosecutors to fill this gap. Our findings reveal considerable unexplained citizenship disparities in multiple case outcomes. Compared to Dutch citizens arrested for the same crimes and with similar criminal records, foreign nationals are more likely to have their cases referred to court, to be detained, convicted, and imprisoned. The interviews identified several mechanisms that explicate these differences, including (i) annoyance when foreign nationals are perceived to be in the country for the purpose of committing crime; (ii) logistical issues when noncitizens do not have a permanent residence, and; (iii) undermining the need for reintegration because many defendants are unlikely to remain in the Netherlands.

      • Light, Michael T. and Julia Thomas. 2021. “Undocumented Immigration and Terrorism: Is there a Connection?Social Science Research 94.

        Unauthorized immigration, already a divisive and controversial subject in American society, was reframed as a grave national security threat after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet, despite substantial public, political and policy attention to the issue of undocumented immigration and terrorism, there has been relatively little empirical assessment of the relationship between unauthorized immigration flows and terrorist activity. We attempt to fill this gap by combining newly developed estimates of the unauthorized population, a novel use of sentencing and prosecutorial data to measure terrorism-related activity, and multiple data sources on the criminological, socioeconomic, and demographic context from all 50 states from 1990 to 2014. We then leverage this unique dataset to examine the longitudinal, macro-level relationship between undocumented immigration and various measures of terrorism. Results from fixed effects negative binomial models suggest that increased undocumented immigration over this period is not associated with terrorist attacks, radicalization, or terrorism prosecutions.

      • Light, Michael T, Jingying He, and Jason P. Robey. 2020. “Comparing crime rates between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born US citizens in Texas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.   

        We make use of uniquely comprehensive arrest data from the Texas Department of Public Safety to compare the criminality of undocumented immigrants to legal immigrants and native-born US citizens between 2012 and 2018. We find that undocumented immigrants have substantially lower crime rates than native-born citizens and legal immigrants across a range of felony offenses. Relative to undocumented immigrants, US-born citizens are over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes. In addition, the proportion of arrests involving undocumented immigrants in Texas was relatively stable or decreasing over this period. The differences between US-born citizens and undocumented immigrants are robust to using alternative estimates of the broader undocumented population, alternate classifications of those counted as “undocumented” at arrest and substituting misdemeanors or convictions as measures of crime.

      • Light, Michael T, Ellen Dinsmore, and Michael Massoglia. 2019. “How do Criminal Courts Respond in Times of Crisis? Evidence from 9/11.” American Journal of Sociology 125: 485-533.   

        How courts make decisions during national emergencies has been a key focus of legal scholarship, yet we know comparatively little about how courts respond to national crises in one of their core functions—criminal sentencing. This article addresses this gap by leveraging the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to examine the punishment of foreign nationals before and after a national emergency. Using difference-in-difference-in-differences estimation, this article finds little evidence that the severity of sentences for non-U.S. citizens changed appreciably nationwide. This article does find, however, considerable evidence of a more local 9/11 effect, whereby the sentencing gap between citizens and noncitizens widened significantly in the New York and Washington, D.C., District Courts following the attacks. Using restricted data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, this article finds suggestive evidence that the differences in sentencing following 9/11 are likely attributable to changes in judges’ behavior, rather than policy shifts or changes in prosecutorial decisions.

      • Light, Michael T. and Julia T, Thomas. 2019. “Segregation and Violence Reconsidered: Do Whites Benefit from Residential Segregation?” American Sociological Review 84: 690-725. 

        Despite marked declines in black-white segregation over the past half century, there has been limited scholarly attention to the effects of increasing integration. This is a significant omission given that sociologists have long viewed residential segregation as a fundamental determinant of racial inequality, and extant research has produced inconsistent findings on the consequences of segregation for different racial groups. Using the case of violence, this study leverages a unique combination of race-specific information on homicide, socioeconomic, and demographic characteristics for 103 major metropolitan areas across five decades (1970 to 2010) to examine the criminogenic consequences of segregation for whites and blacks. Three notable findings emerge from our inquiry: (1) racial segregation substantially increases the risk of homicide victimization for blacks while (2) simultaneously decreasing the risk of white homicide victimization. The result of these heterogeneous effects is that (3) segregation plays a central role in driving black-white differences in homicide mortality. These findings suggest the declines in racial segregation since 1970 have substantially attenuated the black-white homicide gap.

      • Light, Michael T. and Ty Miller. 2018. “Does Undocumented Immigration Increase Violent Crime?” Criminology 56: 370-401.   

        Despite substantial public, political, and scholarly attention to the issue of immigration and crime, we know little about the criminological consequences of undocumented immigration. As a result, fundamental questions about whether undocumented immigration increases violent crime remain unanswered. In an attempt to address this gap, we combine newly developed estimates of the unauthorized population with multiple data sources to capture the criminal, socioeconomic, and demographic context of all 50 states and Washington, DC, from 1990 to 2014 to provide the first longitudinal analysis of the macro-level relationship between undocumented immigration and violence. The results from fixed-effects regression models reveal that undocumented immigration does not increase violence. Rather, the relationship between undocumented immigration and violent crime is generally negative, although not significant in all specifications. Using supplemental models of victimization data and instrumental variable methods, we find little evidence that these results are due to decreased reporting or selective migration to avoid crime. We consider the theoretical and policy implications of these findings against the backdrop of the dramatic increase in immigration enforcement in recent decades.

      • Light, Michael T. and Joey Marshall. 2018. “On the Weak Mortality Returns of the Prison Boom: Comparing Infant Mortality and Homicide in the Incarceration Ledger.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 59: 3-19.   

        The justifications for the dramatic expansion of the prison population in recent decades have focused on public safety. Prior research on the efficacy of incarceration offers support for such claims, suggesting that increased incarceration saves lives by reducing the prevalence of homicide. We challenge this view by arguing that the effects of mass incarceration include collateral infant mortality consequences that call into question the number of lives saved through increased imprisonment. Using an instrumental variable estimation on state-level data from 1978 to 2010, this article simultaneously considers the effects of imprisonment on homicide and infant mortality to examine two of the countervailing mortality consequences of mass incarceration. Results suggest that while incarceration saves lives by lowering homicide rates, these gains are largely offset by the increases in infant mortality. Adjusted figures that count the number of increased infant deaths attributable to incarceration suggest that the mortality benefits of imprisonment over the past three decades are 82% lower than previously thought.

      • Light, Michael T. Ty Miller, and Brian C. Kelly. 2017. “Undocumented Immigration, Drug Problems, and Driving under the influence (DUI), 1990-2014.” American Journal of Public Health. 107: 1448-1454.   

        Objectives. To examine the influence of undocumented immigration in the United States on 4 different metrics of drug and alcohol problems: drug arrests, drug overdose fatalities, driving under the influence (DUI) arrests, and DUI deaths. Methods. We combined newly developed state-level estimates of the undocumented population between 1990 and 2014 from the Center for Migration Studies with arrest data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports and fatality information from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Underlying Cause of Death database. We used fixed-effects regression models to examine the longitudinal association between increased undocumented immigration and drug problems and drunk driving. Results. Increased undocumented immigration was significantly associated with reductions in drug arrests, drug overdose deaths, and DUI arrests, net of other factors. There was no significant relationship between increased undocumented immigration and DUI deaths. Conclusions. This study provides evidence that undocumented immigration has not increased the prevalence of drug or alcohol problems, but may be associated with reductions in these public health concerns.

      • Light, Michael T. 2017. “Re-examining the Relationship between Latino Immigration and Racial/Ethnic Violence.” Social Science Research 65: 222-239.   

        Whether immigration increases crime has long been a source of political debate and scholarly interest. Despite widespread public opinion to the contrary, the weight of evidence suggests the most recent wave of U.S. immigration has not increased crime, and may have actually helped reduce criminal violence. However, with recent shifts in immigrant settlement patterns away from traditional receiving destinations, a series of contemporary studies suggests a more complicated immigration-crime relationship, whereby Latino immigration is said to increase violence in newer immigrant destinations (but not in established destinations) and has varied effects for different racial/ethnic groups. With few exceptions, these more recent studies rely on cross-sectional analyses, thus limiting their ability to examine the longitudinal nexus between Latino immigration and violent crime. This study brings to bear the first longitudinal data set to test the relationship between immigration and racial/ethnic homicide in U.S. metropolitan areas between 1990 and 2010. Results from bivariate longitudinal associations and multivariate fixed effects models are contrary to recent findings – Latino immigration is generally associated with decreases in homicide victimization for whites, blacks, and Hispanics in both established and non-established immigrant destinations, though these associations are not significant in all cases.

      • Houle, Jason. N.* and Michael T. Light.* 2017. “The Harder they Fall? Sex and Race/Ethnic Specific Suicide Rates in the U.S. Foreclosure Crisis.” Social Science and Medicine 180: 114-124.

        Previous work shows suicide rates increase during economic recessions, but little research has examined the extent to which the foreclosure crisis—a unique aspect of the Great Recession—has contributed to disparities in rising suicide rates by race and sex. We develop and test two competing hypotheses regarding the association between foreclosures and race by sex specific suicide rates. We link foreclosure data (RealtyTrac) and suicide data (CDC) from 174 metropolitan areas from 2005 to 2010 (1044 MSA-year observations) and find that—net of time invariant unobserved between-metro area differences, national time trends, and time-varying confounders—a rise in the foreclosure rate is associated with a marginal increase in suicide, but this main effect masks considerable heterogeneity across groups. The association is particularly strong for white males, and weaker or non-existent for other race by sex groups.

      • Light, Michael T. 2017. “Punishing the ‘Others’: Citizenship and State Social Control in the United States and Germany.” European Journal of Sociology 58: 33-71.

        Despite ongoing debates on the continued legal significance of citizenship in a globalized world, international comparative tests of the salience of citizenship under the law have yet to be undertaken. This article combines data from US and German courts with interviews of judges from both countries to 1) estimate the punishment consequences of lacking state membership; 2) compare the sentencing gap across international contexts, and; 3) identify and explicate the mechanisms linking citizenship to punishment considerations. Findings show noncitizens receive increased punishment in US and German courts net of legal factors, but this effect is less pronounced in Germany. The interviews suggest that a variety of intervening mechanisms explain these results. Prominent among these is that judges in both countries resent the fact that noncitizens compound their immigrant status with criminal transgressions. However, German judges place greater emphasis on consistency and proportionality at sentencing, thus guarding against overly harsh and disparate punishments.

      • Light, Michael T. and Jeffery T. Ulmer. 2016. “Explaining the Gaps in White, Black and Hispanic Violence since 1990: Accounting for Immigration, Incarceration, and Inequality.” American Sociological Review 81: 290-315.

        While group differences in violence have long been a key focus of sociological inquiry, we know comparatively little about the trends in criminal violence for whites, blacks, and Hispanics in recent decades. Combining geocoded death records with multiple data sources to capture the socioeconomic, demographic, and legal context of 131 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, this article examines the trends in racial/ethnic inequality in homicide rates since 1990. In addition to exploring long-established explanations (e.g., disadvantage), we also investigate how three of the most significant societal changes over the past 20 years, namely, rapid immigration, mass incarceration, and rising wealth inequality affect racial/ethnic homicide gaps. Across all three comparisons—white-black, white-Hispanic, and black-Hispanic—we find considerable convergence in homicide rates over the past two decades. Consistent with expectations, structural disadvantage is one of the strongest predictors of levels and changes in racial/ethnic violence disparities. In contrast to predictions based on strain theory, racial/ethnic wealth inequality has not increased disparities in homicide. Immigration, on the other hand, appears to be associated with declining white-black homicide differences. Consistent with an incapacitation/deterrence perspective, greater racial/ethnic incarceration disparities are associated with smaller racial/ethnic gaps in homicide.

      • Light, Michael T. 2016. “The Punishment Consequences of Lacking National Membership in Germany, 1998-2010.” Social Forces 94: 1385-1408.

        The comparative study of immigrants’ legal rights has become a key focus of sociological inquiry in recent decades. However, research in this vein has focused primarily on the highest levels of European judiciaries. As a result, we know comparatively little about the implementation of immigrant rights in the lower courts that are charged with enforcing the legal protections of foreigners. Using prosecution data from German criminal courts between 1998 and 2010, this study addresses this gap by investigating (1) the punishment consequences of lacking national membership; (2) sentencing differences between EU and non-EU immigrants; and (3) how the punishment of noncitizens has changed over time. The findings suggest that foreigners punished in German courts receive harsher penalties than comparable German citizens. This punishment gap is observed for both EU and non-EU immigrants; however, there is clear evidence that the punishment gap between German and non-German citizens has waned over the past decade. Taken together, these findings inform ongoing debates on the continued significance of national membership in Western societies and have important implications for understanding contemporary trends in sociolegal inequality.

      • Light, Michael T., Michael Massoglia, and Ryan D. King. 2014. “Citizenship and Punishment: The Salience of National Membership in U.S. Criminal Courts.” American Sociological Review 79: 825-847.

        When compared to research on the association between immigration and crime, far less attention has been given to the relationship between immigration, citizenship, and criminal punishment. As such, several fundamental questions about how noncitizens are sanctioned and whether citizenship is a marker of stratification in U.S. courts remain unanswered. Are citizens treated differently than noncitizens—both legal and undocumented—in U.S. federal criminal courts? Is the well-documented Hispanic-white sentencing disparity confounded by citizenship status? Has the association between citizenship and sentencing remained stable over time? And are punishment disparities contingent on the demographic context of the court? Analysis of several years of data from U.S. federal courts indicates that citizenship status is a salient predictor of sentencing outcomes—more powerful than race or ethnicity. Other notable findings include the following: accounting for citizenship substantially attenuates disparities between whites and Hispanics; the citizenship effect on sentencing has grown stronger over time; and the effect is most pronounced in districts with growing noncitizen populations. These findings suggest that as international migration increases, citizenship may be an emerging and powerful axis of sociolegal inequality.

      • Light, Michael T. 2014. “The New Face of Legal Inequality: Noncitizens and the Long-Term Trends in Sentencing Disparities across U.S. District Courts, 1992-2009.” Law & Society Review 48: 447-478.

        In the wake of mass immigration from Latin America, legal scholars have shifted focus from racial to ethnic inequality under the law. A series of studies now suggest that Hispanics may be the most disadvantaged group in U.S. courts, yet this body of work has yet to fully engage the role of citizenship status. The present research examines the punishment consequences for non-U.S. citizens sentenced in federal courts between 1992 and 2009. Drawing from work in citizenship studies and sociolegal inequality, I hypothesize that nonstate members will be punished more severely than U.S. citizens, and any trends in Hispanic ethnicity over this period will be linked to punitive changes in the treatment of noncitizens. In line with this hypothesis, results indicate a considerable punishment gap between citizens and noncitizens—larger than minority-white disparities. Additionally, this citizenship “penalty” has increased at the incarceration stage, explaining the majority of the increase in Hispanic-white disparity over the past two decades. As international migration increases, these findings call for greater theoretical and empirical breadth in legal inequality research beyond traditional emphases, such as race and ethnicity.

      • Houle, Jason N. and Michael T. Light. 2014. “The Home Foreclosure Crisis and Rising Suicide Rates, 2005-2010.” American Journal of Public Health 104: 1073-1079.

        Objectives. We examined the association between state-level foreclosure and suicide rates from 2005 to 2010 and considered variation in the effect of foreclosure on suicide by age. Methods. We used hybrid random- and fixed-effects models to examine the relation between state foreclosure rates and total and age-specific suicide rates from 2005 to 2010 (n = 306 state-years). Results. Net of other factors, an increase in the within-state total foreclosure rate was associated with a within-state increase in the crude suicide rates (b = 0.04; P < .1), and effects were stronger for the real-estate-owned foreclosure rate (b = 0.16; P < .05). Analysis of age-specific suicide rates indicated that the effects were strongest among the middle-aged (46–64 years: total foreclosure rate, b = 0.21; P < .001; real-estate-owned foreclosure rate, b = 0.83; P < .001). Rising home foreclosure rates explained 18% of the variance in the middle-aged suicide rate between 2005 and 2010. Conclusions. The foreclosure crisis has likely contributed to increased suicides, independent of other economic factors associated with the recession. Rising foreclosure rates may be partially responsible for the recent uptick in suicide among middle-aged adults.

      • Light, Michael T. and Casey T. Harris. 2012. “Race, Space, and Violence: Exploring Spatial Dependence in Structural Covariates of White and Black Violent Crime in U.S. Counties.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 28: 559-586.

        Objectives. To join the literature on spatial analysis with research testing the racial invariance hypothesis by examining the extent to which claims of racial invariance are sensitive to the spatial dynamics of community structure and crime. Methods. Using 1999–2001 county-level arrest data, we employ seemingly unrelated regression models, spatial lag models, and geographically weighted regression analyses to (1) compare the extent of racial similarity/difference across these different modeling procedures, (2) evaluate the impact of spatial dependence on violent crime across racial groups, and (3) explore spatial heterogeneity in associations between macro-structural characteristics and violent crime. Results. Results indicate that spatial processes matter, that they are more strongly associated with white than black violent crime, and that accounting for space does not significantly attenuate race-group differences in the relationship between structural characteristics (e.g., structural disadvantage) and violent crime. Additionally, we find evidence of significant variation across space in the relationships between county characteristics and white and black violent crime, suggesting that conclusions of racial invariance/variation are sensitive to where one is looking. These results are robust to different specifications of the dependent variable as well as different units of analysis. Conclusions. Our study suggests the racial invariance debate is not yet settled. More importantly, our study has revealed an additional level of complexity—race specific patterns of spatially heterogeneous effects—that future research on social structure and racial differences in violence should incorporate both empirically and theoretically.

      • Ulmer, Jeffery T., Michael T. Light, and John Kramer. 2011. “Racial Disparity in the Wake of the Booker/Fanfan Decision: An Alternative Analysis to the USSC’s 2010 Report.” Criminology & Public Policy 10: 1077-1118.

        The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) released a report in March 2010 concluding that disparity in federal sentencing has increased in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in United States v. Booker (2005) and Gall v. United States (2007). In light of this USSC report, we provide an alternative set of analyses that we believe provides a more complete and informative picture of racial, ethnic, and gender disparity in federal sentencing outcomes post-Booker and Gall. We attempt first to replicate the USSC’s models. Then, making different modeling assumptions, we present alternative models of sentencing outcomes across four time periods spanning fiscal years (FY) 2000 to 2009. We find that post-Booker/Gall: 1) Race/ethnic/gender disparity in sentence length decisions is generally comparable with pre-2003 levels; 2) African American males’ odds of imprisonment have increased significantly post-Gall; 3) Immigration cases account for a significant proportion of sentence length disparity affecting Black males; 4) “Government-sponsored” below Federal Sentencing Guidelines sentences are a greater source of racial disparities than judge-initiated deviations. Finally, because much of the debate surrounding the Booker decision involves questions of whether the guidelines must be mandatory to be effective, we also present analyses of federal sentencing disparities prior to the 1996 Koon v. United States decision, a period when the guidelines were arguably most constraining of judicial decision making. Comparing post-Booker and Gall to pre-Koon sentencing practices, we find: 5) With the exception of incarceration disparities for black males, all race/ethnic/gender groups are sentenced either the same or less harshly (compared to whites) under the new advisory system.

      • Ulmer, Jeffery T., Michael T. Light, and John Kramer. 2011. “Does Increased Judicial Discretion Lead to Increased Disparity? The “Liberation” of Judicial Sentencing Discretion In the Wake of the Booker/Fanfan Decision.” Justice Quarterly 28: 799-837.

        The US Sentencing Guidelines are among the most ambitious attempts in history to control sentencing discretion. However, a major sea change occurred in January of 2005, when the US Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Booker and Fanfan, that in order to be constitutional, the federal guidelines must be advisory rather than presumptive. The impact of the Booker/Fanfan decisions on interjurisdictional variation and sentencing disparity is an opportunity to examine the issue of whether the increased opportunity to sentence according to substantively rational criteria entails increased extralegal disparity. We draw on a conceptualization of courts as communities and a focal concerns model of sentencing decisions to frame expectations about federal sentencing in the wake of Booker/Fanfan. We test these expectations using USSC data on federal sentencing outcomes from four time periods: prior to the 2003 PROTECT Act, the period governed by the PROTECT Act, post-Booker/Fanfan, and post-Gall v US. In general, we find that extralegal disparity and between-district variation in the effects of extralegal factors on sentencing have not increased post-Booker and Gall. We conclude that allowing judges greater freedom to exercise substantive rationality does not necessarily result in increased extralegal disparity.