Contemporary societies are culturally diverse. This diversity can be the result of different historical and social processes and might affect the uniformity and efficiency of criminal justice systems. Colonization of indigenous populations that started in the 15th century later European colonization of Africa and migration flows following the Second World War have contributed to this diversity in different ways. The growing importance acquired by culture in the criminal law domain went hand in hand with the attention received by it both in the human rights field (especially linked to minority rights) and in the field of sociological and criminological theories.
Nowadays, crimes such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and other behaviors grounded in “culture or tradition” form the object of several international human rights instruments and media reports. The way in which criminal justice systems deal with such cases, and more in general with cultural factors, varies greatly. Different instruments have been proposed to allow the consideration of cultural elements within criminal proceedings among which (in common law countries) is the formalization of an autonomous “cultural defense.” However, international human rights instruments, especially those protecting the rights of vulnerable subjects such as women and children, have repeatedly discouraged states to take into account “culture, religion, and tradition” as grounds for justification (see, e.g., the Istanbul Convention).
Criminal proceedings are not the only setting to deal with culture and crime. More recently, the development of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and restorative justice both within formal and informal (community) settings have given an additional option to take culture into account in the resolution of disputes (in terms of procedures used and normativities in play). Concerns exist with regard to the substantive and procedural rights of participants to these programs. However, these alternatives could represent a way to allow a certain degree of legal pluralism and facilitate access to justice for minority groups.
In the context of crime, victimization, and immigration in the United States, research shows that people are afraid of immigrants because they think immigrants are a threat to their safety and engage in many violent and property crimes. However, quantitative research has consistently shown that being foreign born is negatively associated with crime overall and is not significantly associated with committing either violent or property crime. If an undocumented immigrant is arrested for a criminal offense, it tends to be for a misdemeanor. Researchers suggest that undocumented immigrants may be less likely to engage in serious criminal offending behavior because they seek to earn money and not to draw attention to themselves. Additionally, immigrants who have access to social services are less likely to engage in crime than those who live in communities where such access is not available. In regard to victimization, immigrants are more likely to be victims of crime. Foreign-born victims of crime may not report their victimization because of fears that they will experience negative consequences if they contact the police. Recently, concern about immigration and victimization has turned to refugees who are at risk of harm from traffickers, who warehouse them, threaten them, and physically abuse them with impunity. More research is needed on the relationship among immigration, offending, and victimization. The United States and other nations that focus on border security may be misplacing their efforts during global crises that result in forced migrations. Poverty and war, among other social conditions that would “encourage” a person to leave their homeland in search of a better life, should be addressed by governments when enforcing immigration laws and policy.