In the midst of a historic swell of bipartisan agreement to reform mandatory minimum drug sentences, downsize an overcrowded federal prison system, and save billions of dollars of finite Justice Department resources for the worst-of-the-worst offenders, it is disconcerting to see new bills in Congress that would single-handedly undermine any improvements achieved by these reforms. 

Those bills are the “Kate’s Law” efforts to create new, five-year mandatory minimum prison sentences for noncitizens who illegally reenter the U.S. after being deported. The bills are inspired by the tragic murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a man who had already been incarcerated three times in the U.S. for illegal reentry (apparently, incarceration wasn’t sending the desired message to him: stay out).  

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Immigration enforcement is a complex and difficult task, and there are apparently many reasons dangerous people slip through the system’s holes. But a new mandatory minimum prison sentence isn’t a good patch. We can’t incarcerate our way out of our immigration problems any more than we’ve been able to incarcerate our way out of our drug problems. 

Ironically, the proposed mandatory minimum sentence might make immigration enforcement even harder. The Justice Department prosecutes around 20,000 illegal reentry cases a year; about 75 percent of those cases (15,000) involve a defendant who has been deported following a conviction for a felony. Virtually all of these offenders receive prison sentences, averaging 18 months. If that sounds short, it is due to a “fast-track” procedure prosecutors rely on to process the huge numbers of cases efficiently. Promising shorter sentences gets immigration offenders to plead guilty early and gets them removed from the country sooner.  

The proposed mandatory minimum sentence would be a serious threat to “fast-track” programs that aid prosecutor efficiency. If a person will serve five years no matter what, why plead guilty? The increase in trials and lengthier criminal proceedings would slow the wheels of justice considerably and could mean fewer prosecutions overall. According to director Sarah Saldana, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is already prioritizing the most dangerous reentry offenders over those who, for example, lack serious criminal records. 

The Justice Department has already warned Congress that the $7 billion it must spend on already overcrowded federal prisons annually is causing devastating cutbacks to funding for state and local law enforcement priorities. Prison funding has doubled in the last decade, while law enforcement funding has been cut in half. A five-year mandatory minimum sentence would increase the average sentence for illegal reentry by 3.5 years – and increase costs by $1.75 billion per year. We’d need to build another 50,000 prison beds to accommodate these new guests. Put differently: say adios to more police, more prosecutors, more FBI agents, and more of the tools they need to protect the public. 

It is a disservice to families like the Steinles to take the resources we use on FBI agents and prosecutors, who investigate and prosecute violent criminals and terrorists, and use those funds to hold and babysit thousands of migrant workers, maids, and landscapers. Congress can do as it pleases, but it can’t call this improving public safety.  

Finally, a mandatory minimum sentence for illegal reentry is unjust and unnecessary. It would apply the same five-year prison sentence to a person who illegally reenters the country to recruit gang members … or to donate a kidney to his dying child … or to escape religious persecution. One-size-fits-all sentences inevitably produce absurd, unintended, and unjust outcomes. About a quarter of all illegal reentry cases do involve a person convicted of a felony, but the federal sentencing guidelines already call for longer sentences for these offenders. Federal judges follow these guidelines in the vast majority of illegal reentry cases. 

Immigration law violations undoubtedly can be serious and damaging to communities. But the federal justice system is already maxed out, with no more money coming and public safety funding diminishing. That’s why leaders in both parties and both houses of Congress have proposed reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum drug sentences. Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyFBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Klobuchar taking over Franken's sexual assault bill Lawyer: Kushner is 'the hero' in campaign emails regarding Russia MORE (R-Iowa) is currently negotiating a package of drug sentencing reforms. Any cost-savings and public safety enhancements attained from wiser drug sentencing laws will be negated by mandatory minimum sentences for immigration offenders. Like all mandatory minimum sentences, passing one for illegal reentry may feel good now, but it will hurt us – in this case, sooner rather than later.

Gill is the government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM, www.famm.org).