The episode made me think of the panel on immigration detention your correspondent moderated at the UT LBJ-School last fall where former state Rep. Jerry Madden, who before this session chaired the House Corrections Committee, argued for saving money by limiting detention of asylum seekers and low-risk immigration detainees, urging the feds to adopt lessons on saving money spent on incarceration that drove Texas' 2007 probation reforms. That's exactly what's happening now thanks to fiscal necessity rather than good public policy. But sequester-imposed austerity makes the important point that immigration detention is not free - even if borrowed budget dollars at times make it seem as though spending on it is unlimited - and is now forcing the feds to engage in cost-benefit analyses regarding which immigrants should be incarcerated while they wait for backlogged courts to process cases.
More concerning than the politicized debate over low-risk immigration releases are the $338 million in cuts to the federal Bureau of Prisons, which has no authority to increase releases to accommodate its reduced budget. According to Business Insider:
The Bureau oversees 188 facilities and contracts 16 facilities out to private prison companies. Currently, there is a grand total of 217,249 inmates in the federal prison system, a number BOP expects to rise to 229,300 by the end of 2013. In 2012, the BOP had a budget of $6.6 billion, with 41,310 employees. Correctional officers make up around half of the staff, with 19,756 employees in 2012.
According to DOJ, the sequester budget cuts will result in 5 percent reduction in the Bureau's workforce, which will be achieved by freezing future hiring and furloughing 36,700 staff for an average of 12 days. This means that almost every employee will have to go home without pay for some time, leaving BOP to function at unnecessarily low security levels.
Attorney General Eric Holder indicated that this reduction in force would endanger the lives of staff and inmates.
According to the Attorney General, the BOP will have to implement full or partial lock downs across the board. In a letter to Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Holder said "This would leave inmates idle, increasing the likelihood of inmate misconduct, violence, and other risks to correctional workers and inmates."
Complicating all of this is the fact that the federal prison system is already severely over capacity.
According to the 2012 Justice Department annual report, the system is 38 percent overcapacity, a problem that the Department has identified as a major weakness.Holder has said the Department of Justice will be forced to cancel funding for rehabilitation programs and staffing, but, "To be blunt, sequestration means less money, not fewer inmates." The immigration system can safely adjust to lower funding levels. The federal prison system, OTOH, will be screwed six ways from Sunday.