Critical Criminology

, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 329–345 | Cite as

Drugs, Crime, and Aggravated Felony Deportations: Moral Panic Theory and the Legal Construction of the “Criminal Alien”

  • Sarah ToshEmail author


The “aggravated felony” is an oft-overlooked legal distinction that provides the basis for the removal of thousands of immigrants each year. This category’s broad expansion and definitive results draw from a punitive turn in crime, drug, and immigration policy, which occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. The concept of “moral panic” is a useful tool for those who seek to understand the development of punitive responses to perceived social problems. This article revisits the original formulations of moral panic theory in order to highlight the importance of societal context in determining the symbolic salience and punitive outcomes of moral panics. The goal of the article is to evaluate the thesis that a moral panic about immigrant criminality played an important role in the development of the aggravated felony category.



This paper was written with the support of the Behavioral Science Training in Drug Abuse Research Fellowship at Rory Myers College of Nursing, New York University; the David Garth Dissertation Award in Public Policy at the Graduate Center, CUNY; and the Pollis Dissertation Fellowship at the Graduate Center, CUNY. I would also like to acknowledge my advisors David Brotherton, Philip Kretsedemas, Jayne Mooney, Leslie Paik, and Monica Varsanyi, as well as the invaluable insight of my greatly missed teacher and mentor, the late Jock Young.

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Conflict of interest

The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sociology Department, The Graduate CenterCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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