The tentative federal court ruling last week that California must release thousands of inmates in its correctional system comes as more bad news for a state trying to enforce the law and control its budget. One partial solution may lie in a federal program.
Under the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, California must develop a comprehensive plan to reduce the state prison population by as many as 57,000 people over the course of two to three years, unless the state reaches an agreement with the inmates who are the plaintiffs in the case. Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown's office has announced that the state will appeal the decision if it becomes final. In the meantime, the state should reconsider joining a program that is saving millions of dollars each year in states including Arizona and New York, and soon many others.
This innovative cost-cutting measure is Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Removal of Eligible Parolees Accepted for Transfer program, known as Rapid Repat. On top of significant savings related to housing inmates, this program has the added benefit of reducing California's criminal alien -- legal and illegal -- prison population and would be a logical part of any comprehensive plan to reduce the prison population.
The program provides for conditional early release of qualifying non- violent criminal aliens on the condition that they voluntarily agree to deportation. Under this program, immigrants are not treated differently from U.S. citizens, as far as early release is concerned. The state must already have (or put in place) a parole structure that permits early release for eligible U.S. citizen criminals. Immigrants who have committed violent, serious felonies are not eligible.
If an immigrant participates but then comes back into the United States illegally, the individual first serves the remainder of his or her state sentence. After that, ICE will present the case to the U.S. attorney's office for federal prosecution for illegal reentry after removal, subjecting the individual to a potentially lengthy federal prison term.
The success of Rapid Repat in other states demonstrates its potential in California. New York has used a version of this program since 1995, saving the state more than $120 million. Arizona joined the program in late 2005 and has saved more than $18 million. In the last year, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island and Georgia have begun participating. Rapid Repat also saves federal taxpayers significant money by reducing federal detention and court time, and leveraging limited federal detention resources.
Not only is this program fiscally responsible, there also is interest from criminal aliens who wish to leave the country. In fact, when I announced that ICE was expanding the program in 2007 for a brief period, I got letters daily from inmates begging me to help them go back to their home countries. Many enclosed copies of their travel documents and court documents ordering them removed. Not surprisingly, it is rare for the agency to be contacted by criminal aliens requesting that their removal from the U.S be expedited.
Yet, despite Rapid Repat's obvious benefits, California has not joined. The state has one of the highest populations of incarcerated criminal aliens -- an estimated 30,000. With California's immense prison overcrowding problems and last week's federal court ruling, the state needs to act -- and soon. Rapid Repat is a realistic option that California's political leadership should at minimum begin discussing seriously again and then join, making it part of any plan to reduce prison overcrowding.
Like many programs that seek pragmatic solutions, Rapid Repat has been criticized from both sides. Immigration advocates claim that it is too harsh on illegal immigrants, and enforcement hawks claim that it is too soft. Certainly the program is not a panacea for budget woes or criminal-immigrant problems. But properly managed, Rapid Repat has the enviable result of encouraging nonviolent criminal aliens to return to their home countries while saving the U.S. taxpayers significant money. In these tough times, that's a great place to start.
Julie Myers Wood was the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement from January 2006 to November 2008.