Thursday, March 06, 2008

Immigration and County Jails: Are high costs caused by an unfunded mandate or poor choices by county sheriffs?

A national study confirms a proposition I've contended for some time: That immigration enforcement has placed a huge unfunded mandate on counties, particularly when, for political reasons, Sheriffs choose to expand immigration enforcement duties beyond minimum requirements, as has happened in Austin, Houston, and elsewhere. Reported the NY Times ("Border counties shortchanged in immigrant costs, study says," March 6):
Counties along the Mexican border from California to Texas are shortchanged millions of dollars a year in costs related to prosecuting and jailing illegal immigrants, according to a study released Wednesday.

The study was by the University of Arizona and San Diego State University on behalf of the United States/Mexico Border Counties Coalition, a group representing the 24 border counties.

Cumulatively, the counties spent $1.23 billion from 1999 to 2006 to process illegal immigrants in the justice system, the study found. Federal programs offset only a fraction of those costs, and often did not receive the maximum level of financing that they are authorized to receive, the study said.

“This is a huge problem because we can’t keep up with fixing roads, the others costs of law enforcement, keeping up health agencies,” said Paul Newman, a member of the board of supervisors in Cochise County, Ariz., a hot spot for illegal border crossings. “It is a big hit on counties that per capita are unable to meet other needs.”

It's in this same context that I find completely inexplicable the decision by the Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton to expand the presence of federal immigration officers in the already overcrowded county jail. According to city councilmember Mike Martinez, "Prior to the change there were only a handful of cases per month resulting in detainments (4 to 5). That number has now risen to approximately 111 for December and over 110 for the first 2 weeks of February alone."

These are OPTIONAL inmates, extra prisoners taking up jail space because of a political decision by elected officials, and for no other reason.

Similarly, when Harris County (Houston) already must ship 600+ inmates per month out of state because they can't house them all - and when voters rejected plans for a new jail - why in the world would Sheriff Tommy Thomas want his officers empowered to arrest people on immigration charges? The Houston Chronicle reported last month ("ICE to train jail workers to ID illegal immigrants," Feb. 1) that:
Thomas has authorized selected Sheriff's Office personnel assigned to Harris County's Inmate Processing Center to receive 287(g) training from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Sheriff's spokesman Capt. John Martin.

The program — named for the section of 1996 immigration law that created it — has trained state police in Arizona, Alabama, Colorado, and sheriff's departments in California's Los Angeles and Orange counties and in Maricopa County, Ariz., to identify, process, and detain immigration offenders encountered during regular law enforcement activity.

About six to 12 deputies and detention officers will make up the initial group to receive the training, Martin said.

"Illegal immigration continues to be an important topic for Harris County and a lot of people want to know what law enforcement is doing about it," he said. "This is just something that's going to supplement our efforts to identify people at booking who are in this country illegally."

The training would give employees the ability to interview inmates more thoroughly about their immigration status and authorize them to detain those determined to be in the country illegally, Martin said.
The only point of the training is to detain more people, but the jail is full. Other than making some abstract political statement, the practical function of Hamilton's and Thomas' new programs - whether ICE vets the arrestees or Sheriff's employees do - is to fill up the jail with defendants who otherwise pose little threat to public safety.

Without these optional initiatives, under the prior system illegal immigrants were identified by ICE upon conviction and a "hold" was then placed on the prisoner for deportation when their sentence was finished. What the Sheriffs are doing is pushing that identification process to the front of the system rather than the back end, when folks are arrested, not when they're convicted.

Immigration violations are a civil matter, to my mind something Sheriffs have no business getting involved in; that's why we have federal immigration enforcers. Even worse, though, than some abstract concern about separation of powers, when Sheriffs' decisions exacerbate jail overcrowding with no public safety benefit, you're starting to eat up resources that are supposed to protect the public from criminals and other actual threats.

RELATED: Add surname profiling to reason to oppose ICE in Travis County Jail.


Anonymous said...

wonder why they (the "System") can't take their billions of dollars and build ONE jail Just fot the immigrants in a wide open space in Central Texas, and throw their butts in there instead of crowding them in our already over crowded jails and prisons?? They could build housing for staff, with free rent, and good wages, and I bet they wouldnt have a problem keeping help!

Anonymous said...

Federal funds for immigration holds may not cover all the costs, however, they provide a huge incentive for Sheriff's to hold arrestees.

Balancing a jail budget means keeping them full in order to benefit from economies of scale. If the Fed can help with the bill, great!

I agree that illegal immigration is a civil rather than matter. We should have more media coverage of that concept.

Anonymous said...

How does identifying the status, legal or illegal, "at the time of booking" cause overcrowding? If they are already being booked there must be a criminal charge for which they are going to be in the jail. I'm no expert, but as I understand the process, ICE then elects to issue a detainer or not based upon the criminal history of the person. If they do issue a detainer, the jail holds the person for a short period after they have served their sentence or otherwise dealt with all of the criminal charges. If they are not picked up by ICE within that window, then the person is released. Are you saying that holding the illegal immigrant for that short period while awaiting ICE causes additional overcrowding?

Anonymous said...

It would seem to me that ONE person ONE hour would be overcrowding as it is already so crammed. However when they round em up...they take a truck load in.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:12 answered your question - the Travis jail doesn't have room for people who NEED to be there, much less optional people.

People are booked into jail upon arrest, not upon conviction. The new policy causes immigrants who aren't a threat to anyone to be held without bond pending trial, which increases overcrowding. ICE can't take them till their local charge is finished.

Also, ICE is not checking "criminal history," they're checking immigration status. If they were only deporting those with documented criminal histories, I would have less objection. But that's not what they're doing.

Anonymous said...

Why has Tommy Thomas not left the job of Sheriff? I hope he is soon tied to Rosenthal, they are in the same boat and need to both sink together. Tommy Thomas's son had committed at least two felonies and shot a man, but since he did not die, there were no charges filed. This was well written in the newspaper. See anything wrong with this? You shoot someone and see what happens to you.

I see two forms of justice, illegal justice and the Thomas style of justice, which both should be abolished.