Friday, January 29, 2010

Arizona transfers migrant inmates to ICE custody (Arizona Republic)

Arizona transfers migrant inmates to ICE custody
Significant savings expected as prisoners are turned over to customs

by JJ Hensley - Jan. 29, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

State officials searched high and low for budget savings, and found some sitting in Arizona prisons.

An order from Gov. Jan Brewer will tally more than $200,000 in savings after the Department of Corrections on Thursday turned over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials 51 illegal immigrants housed in Arizona prisons.

The move was the result of a directive Brewer issued last month for non-violent, criminal aliens with 90 days or less left on their sentences to be delivered to ICE for deportation proceedings.

It costs Arizona taxpayers an average of about $57 a day to house prisoners in state custody.

With as many as 1,200 prisoners eligible for the early-release program over the next 18 months, DOC Director Chuck Ryan said the move ultimately should save the state millions of dollars.

The federal government is supposed to reimburse local law enforcement for costs associated with housing criminal migrants, but local agencies have traditionally received pennies on the dollar for what they're owed, and even that allocation could end under a proposed federal budget.

"President Obama's budget calls for ending all reimbursement," said Brewer's spokesman, Paul Senseman. "This is a first (step) . . . to actually transfer these inmates to their care and custody. It's one of the first things they can do. The main focus is to continue to lobby the federal government to fully reimburse."

Arizona leaders have made an issue of the payments for several years, starting when then-Gov. Janet Napolitano began sending bills to the federal government to cover those costs. Brewer reiterated that call last year, and state Treasurer Dean Martin repeated the largely symbolic move earlier this month when he sent Napolitano, now Obama's secretary of Homeland Security, a bill for $1 billion to cover those costs, with interest.

The practice of billing the federal government for inmate costs may be rife with symbolism, but removing criminal migrants from Arizona prison cells as early as possible translates to immediate savings, Senseman said.

"It is an enormous burden on local governments, particularly on counties that are contiguous with our international border," he said.

Brewer's new directive builds on a program already in place with ICE that saw up to 200 inmates transferred to federal custody each month. About 80 percent of those inmates are quickly deported to their country of origin. The remainder go to holding facilities in places like Eloy, where they await deportation hearings, said an ICE spokesman in Phoenix.

The early release of criminal migrants mirrors a system in place for U.S. citizens housed in Arizona prisons, who can be sent to a supervised-release program within 90 days of the end of their sentence.

Though the inmates were getting out of jail early, and some could be deported within days, Ryan said they should depart with a clear message.

"Don't come back," he said.

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