Law Office of Tim Powers
Originally published in the Current.
Published: September 19, 2012
GOP State Rep. Jerry Madden took the helm of the House corrections committee
in 2005, just in time for a deeply distressing projection: booming incarceration
in our notoriously tough-on-crime state meant Texas would need eight new
prisons by 2012, at a cost of about $1 billion. Meanwhile, Madden got
stern marching orders from then-House Speaker Tom Craddick.
"Don't build new prisons," Madden recalled last week. "They
cost too much."
Pulling from both conservative and liberal playbooks, two years later Texas
pushed through landmark criminal justice reforms, shuffling funding to
drug and DWI courts, curbing the average time for probation (the prison
system's top feeder) and ordering the state parole board to raise
its parole rate.
This year, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's population remained
17,000 prisoners below what state officials had projected, and "right-on-crime"
advocates say Texas has saved over $2 billion in the process.
Madden touted the lesson to criminal justice experts and immigration reform
advocates from across the country that gathered last week. The forum at
UT-Austin's LBJ School, sponsored by Human Rights First, was the first
of four being held across the country aimed at carrying prison-reduction
strategies over into the nation's booming immigrant detention system,
which in 2011, according to the latest Office of Immigration Statistics
report, jailed about 429,000 immigrants – a new record, even as
illegal border crossers have dropped to a 40-year low.
The U.S. immigration detention network "is a fiscal conservative's
nightmare, an absolute nightmare," said Texas criminal justice watchdog
Scott Henson, who authors the closely-watched blog Grits for Breakfast.
Moderating a panel on detention alternatives, Henson said, "I will
tell you that the most right-wing county commissioner's court in Texas
wouldn't tolerate for a second the kind of dysfunction and inefficiency
and waste of millions and millions of dollars that's apparently just
accepted in the immigration system."
It's fiscal reality that began to turn around Texas' incarceration
rates. With a history of hard sentencing and a penchant for tough, conservative
judges, Texas' inmate population rose a staggering 573 percent between
1978 and 2004, even as the state's overall population rose by only
67 percent, according to data Henson's crunched. When you look at
immigrant detention, the structural problems are very similar.
But while Texas in recent years has emerged as a model for other states
looking to reduce jail population (though we've yet to see what effect
last year's deep cuts at the Lege will have), U.S. immigration policies
have followed a track almost solely focused on detention.
So-called "Mandatory Detention" policies have evolved over the
past two decades to envelop more and more asylum seekers and border crossers
who pose little flight risk or threat to the community, according to advocacy
group Detention Watch Network, which estimates 60 percent of immigrants
detained fall under "mandatory detention."
Earlier this year, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened its
GEO Group-run civil detention center in Karnes County, meant to house
the lowest-risk detainees, ICE enforcement and removal operations head
Gary Mead insisted mandatory detention made such a facility necessary,
even if the immigrants housed there posed little or no risk.
Despite deaths, riots, and a steady stream of troubling claims of abuse,
ICE detention facilities increased by over 200 percent between 2002 and
2008. The immigrant detention network – half of which is now overseen
by private prison contractors – grew fat off initiatives like Operation
Streamline, a federal policy expanded in 2005 to detain immigrants who
enter illegally. Under that program, first-time border crossers serve
a 30-day sentence, while repeat offenders may get slapped with anywhere
from a one to 20-year sentence. It appears that jailing so many immigrants
for illegal entry has even begun to fundamentally change the makeup of
the federal prison population. In 2011, for the first time ever, Hispanics,
only about 16 percent of the U.S. population, made up 50.3 percent of
those sentenced for felonies.
While ICE says over half of its detainees are deported within eight days,
advocates and immigration lawyers all point to numerous cases where immigrants
have waited months to even a year for a hearing in the heavily backlogged
immigration court system. "Civil detention becomes punitive if it's
prolonged," said Barbara Hines, co-director of UT's immigration
law clinic. "Unless we're talking about shortening the times
of detention, I think we're missing a key part of this whole discussion."
Since 2001, incarcerating immigrants has cost taxpayers some $5.5 billion,
while adding to the fortunes of private prison groups like Corrections
Corporation of America and GEO Group, which now rely heavily on lucrative
immigrant detention contracts with the feds. But unlike the fiscal reality
that sparked Texas' criminal justice reforms – a balanced budget
every year, no matter what – the feds can keep on expanding and
spending on immigrant detention as long as Congress approves it.
Congress is set to approve nearly $26 million for an additional 1,000 private
prison beds under the Federal Bureau of Prisons' "Criminal Alien
Requirements" program for 2013. Advocates with the Austin-based nonprofit
Grassroots Leadership say the CAR program's rife with abuse and waste,
and testified last week at a congressional briefing by U.S. Rep. Jared
Polis, who's urged for reforms in the immigrant detention system.
If you are seeking aggressive criminal representation by an experienced
criminal defense attorney for your Denton County criminal case or arrest
in Denton County, contact the offices of Tim Powers today. There is no
charge or obligation for the initial consultation. 940.580.2899.
*Tim Powers is an attorney licensed to practice law by the Supreme Court
of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For
legal advice about any specific legal question you should directly consult