On criminal convictions and immigrant background

Criminal convictions and immigrant background – have differences increased or declined?


Picture of Felipe Estrada, holding a picture of his family as they arrive in Sweden in 1974. Felipe has greyish beard, wears round glasses and is dressed in a grey suit and dark-grey shirt.
Felipe in 1974, waiving as he arrives in Sweden in his Chilean poncho. Photo: Jonas Rhezila

Felipe Estrada, Professor in criminology at Stockholm University and current chairman of the Nordic Research Council for Criminology.

In the Nordic public debate changes in migration patterns are often linked to increases in crime and an alleged increase of the over representation in crime among individuals of foreign background. In recent years, alleged negative developments in Sweden in particular have attracted substantial interest and have even given rise to a new concept – “the Swedish condition”.

Numerous studies have shown that individuals of foreign background are over represented among those registered for crime. In studies that have also been able to capture between-group differences in levels of resources, this over representation tends to be lower. However, a problem in the literature is that the levels of over representation differs between studies due to differences in study populations, the types of data and crime outcomes analysed. The lack of studies that have been able to combine analyses of immigrant and other factors such as socioeconomic background over time is also problematic. This is a knowledge gap also in other parts of the world, since such analyses require the linking of different data sets that are rarely available over significant periods of time.
In concrete terms, the difficulties comparing results from different studies mean that analyses have rarely been able to draw more precise conclusions about whether levels of over representation, either in general or for different groups or offence types, have varied over time.

My colleagues from the Department of Criminology at Stockholm university, Olof Bäckman, Anders Nilsson, Fredrik Sivertsson and I have recently published a study in NJC (thanks to the reviewers for detailed and excellent feedback!). Our article’s central research question is whether differences in conviction levels for those of foreign background have increased, declined or remained unchanged over recent decades.

Our results show that levels of criminal convictions for crime have declined over the past 40 years irrespective of the individuals’ immigrant background. For men born abroad, the levels of over representation are lower during the 2010s than they were during the 1990s irrespective of whether they were born in Western or non-Western countries. Moreover, we can see that after our control for the individuals’ socioeconomic conditions during childhood, there is only a small over representation during the 2010s for foreign-born men in relation to native men.
The second generation constitutes the group for whom the trend in convictions has been the least positive. When we focus on different offence types, it is clear that young second-generation men have experienced a powerful increase in convictions for drug offences. In sum our results are similar to those reported in neighbouring Nordic countries. In this regard the accusations in the political debate of a special “Swedish condition” regarding immigration and crime trends seem inaccurate.
However, as mentioned the available Nordic studies all use different operationalisations of key indicators and also differ in their methods of analysis which makes it difficult to compare studies both within and between countries. We are therefore collaborating with several colleagues in a project funded by the Rockwool Foundation in a comparative study covering a substantial period of time based on a common method and comparable data. Results are expected late 2021.

A final note on the most urgent knowledge gap. Interpretations of our results are of course complicated by the fact that trends in convictions are not only a consequence of offending behaviour but also of society’s reactions to crime. If for example the police choose to direct their control measures at socially disadvantaged areas, the detection risk will increase more for those who spend time in these areas. A closer examination of the trends across different sociodemographic groups in the risk for being subject to police controls would be very useful. I am not aware of any such studies in the Nordic countries. As a means of approaching this issue, we are therefore currently working with a study on ethnic and socio-demographic profiling of forced narcotics tests in Sweden 1993-2015.

The full article is available here (Open Access):


Felipe Estrada
Professor in criminology at Stockholm University and current chairman of the Nordic Research Council for Criminology.