The truth is that current immigration detention practices are deeply flawed and inefficient. To put it in the language of policy priorities, it wastes money while costing the U.S. its values. For the immigration detention system, the sequester may actually help impose some of the rationality the system desperately needs, including the supervised release of individuals who had no business in detention in the first place.
For starters, there is no evidence that supervised release programs pose a threat to the public. Alternatives to detention have long been used in the criminal justice system for individuals who have been charged with a crime but not convicted or sentenced. Alternatives have also been a standard component of the federal immigration enforcement system for years. The company that provides alternatives to ICE has reported that 96 percent of individuals enrolled in their programs showed up for their final hearing in 2011.
Furthermore, the vast majority of detained immigrants have no criminal history or are low risk. In fact, Dora Schriro, who has run two state prison systems and currently serves as commissioner of correction in New York City, wrote IN a 2009 report that immigration detention standards “impose more restrictions and carry more costs than are necessary to effectively manage the majority of the detained population.”
While the use of alternatives to detention will not make us less safe, they will save taxpayers millions of dollars. That’s a fact worth noting. ICE spends $2 billion annually to detain over 400,000 immigrants in jails and jail-like facilities. These immigrants include asylum seekers fleeing persecution, legal immigrants who overstayed their visas, recent border crossers, and lawful permanent residents who were charged with or convicted of crimes that may make them removable; if convicted and sentenced, they’ve already done their time.
Alternatives are dramatically less expensive than immigration detention – 30 cents to $14 per person per day compared to $164 per person per day for detention. The director of the Santa Clara Office of Pretrial Services in California noted at a Human Rights First event last fall that independent auditors found the pretrial services program saved $26 million for Santa Clara County over the course of just six months in 2011. The director of the New Orleans’ new pretrial services program reported at another Human Rights First event that Orleans Parish could potentially save $1.4 million per year with the program. The Council on Foreign Relations, the Heritage Foundation, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, home to the criminal justice reform coalition Right on Crime, Human Rights First, and others have all advocated for expanded use of alternatives, citing cost savings.
Rather than using the releases as a scare tactic, those in Washington on both sides of the aisle should recognize that this particular move is a step towards imposing some rationality on a system that has exploded in recent years due to fear, not facts. It begins to bring practice into alignment with our nation’s goals and values - perhaps one of the few silver linings that MAY emerge from the sequester.
In a 1987 Supreme Court opinion, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, “In our society, liberty is the norm and detention prior to trial is the carefully limited exception.” The government should not spend money to detain immigrants unnecessarily when less costly and effective alternatives exist. Congress should recognize responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars when it sees it. During budget negotiations, it should eliminate the quota that undermines ICE’s ability to replace detention with alternatives and it should direct the agency to detain only when necessary. To do otherwise is to perpetuate a tremendous waste of taxpayer money and government resources.
Epstein is a senior associate in Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection Program.