NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 9, 2006

California has struggled for years to reduce the soaring population in its overburdened prisons, but a proposal that could have forced as many as 20,000 inmates who are illegal immigrants to serve their sentences in their home countries has faltered over concerns it would be viewed as anti-immigrant, say observers.

Under current law, the federal government is supposed to reimburse the state for the costs of incarcerating undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes, but it has paid less than a quarter of the costs under the Bush administration, say observers:

  • In fiscal 2004, California received only $75 million for its $574 million in costs, and in the current fiscal year the state is receiving $107 million for its $734 million in costs.
  • The pool of inmates that might be included in the program is huge -- of the nearly 171,000 inmates crowding state prisons, 22,478, or about 13 percent as of March 31, are undocumented immigrants or are suspected of being undocumented.
  • The overwhelming majority of those, 15,396, are from Mexico.

Those convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder, would not have been eligible for the program, and none would have been returned to countries that are not signatories to international treaties that govern the transfer of inmates.

The staff of state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) estimated that the law would have saved as much as $1 billion, an extraordinary benefit for a corrections system that costs the state more than $8 billion a year.

The program could also have significantly reduced pressure on an array of prison programs that have been deemed grossly inadequate by federal courts. The nearly 171,000 inmates in the state's 33 prisons is nearly double the design capacity, say observers.

Source: James Sterngold, "Bid fails to deport immigrant prisoners; Bill to ease crowding seen as a victim of demonstrations," San Francisco Chronicle, May 4, 2006.

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