Oregon Discontinues Failed Prisoner Deportation Program
According to the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), 1,289 prisoners, or about 9.2% of the state’s prison population, are illegal immigrants. With an average daily incarceration cost of $84 per prisoner, the ODOC spends about $39.5 million annually to confine those non-citizen offenders – most of whom are serving time for drug-related crimes.
In an effort to cut incarceration costs, in 2009 Oregon adopted a deportation program similar to a federal program known as Rapid REPAT. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.37]. The Oregon program called for the governor to commute the sentences of non-violent, non-citizen offenders who were within six months of release so they could be transferred to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for expedited deportation. Proponents estimated that some 200 offenders would initially be deported under Oregon’s version of the program.
“It was put together under the guise that this potentially would save the budget $2 million,” said Christine Miles, press secretary for Governor John Kitzhaber, who took office in January 2011. “There were a lot of limitations on this program, and once they finally got it off the ground and running, it just didn’t pencil out.”
Indeed. Oregon saved a mere $172,097 by commuting the sentences of just 44 prisoners – 42 of whom were from Mexico – according to financial data provided by ODOC officials. The last of the group of 44 prisoners was released to ICE custody in July 2010.
Oregon’s deportation program was enacted on July 1, 2009 as part of HB 3508, but did not launch until January 2010 due to stalled negotiations between state and federal officials. Once a memorandum of understanding was finally reached, the eligibility criteria dramatically limited the pool of potential candidates, according to the ODOC.
“Initially, we had a big pool to look at and start weeding through,” noted Guy Hall, administrator of the ODOC’s Office of Population Management. “But once you got through that initial bubble, so to speak, the people waiting in line as they marched through their incarceration towards their last six months really slowed down.”
Screening potentially eligible prisoners required extensive time and effort by ODOC staff, Hall noted. “I think people were assuming that the entire six months would be saved [in terms of incarceration costs], but there were some people that were a month to the door, a week or so to the door,” he said. “So we didn’t glean the entire six months savings for lots of folks in the initial screening.”
In exchange for commutation and early release, eligible prisoners – who frequently did not speak English – were required to waive their right to challenge their deportation, and sign agreements that specified they would face up to 20 years in federal prison if caught again in the United States illegally. Legal complications related to those conditions chilled prisoners’ interest in the program.
On September 24, 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that certain illegal immigrants facing “stipulated removal” from the United States have a due process right to counsel and, when necessary, to qualified translators to properly explain legal issues related to their deportation. See: United States v. Ramos, 623 F.3d 672 (9th Cir. 2010).
“I think ICE had slowed down in marching through this process because this case was going through the courts,” said Hall, “and then there was an outcome that they felt left them with a very slender pool of folks they could actually deport without that counsel process.”
ICE has spearheaded longstanding, successful expedited deportation programs in other states, such as Arizona, Georgia and New York. Those states have deported thousands of undocumented offenders before completion of their prison sentences, resulting in substantial savings. Georgia’s program has saved $200 million, New York has realized $150 million in savings and Arizona saved over $33 million, according to immigration officials.
When Oregon achieved just 8 percent of its projected $2.1 million in savings, the governor and his policy advisors “took a hard look” at the deportation program and pulled the plug, Miles stated.
“This program wasn’t giving us the cost effectiveness that we originally thought,” she said. “We also want people to know that if you come to Oregon and you do a crime, no matter where you are from, you need to do the time.”
Pursuant to statute, the commutations granted to the 44 Oregon prisoners so they could be transferred to ICE custody and deported were not included in an annual report to the legislature regarding the number of pardons and clemencies granted by the governor. It’s as if those commutations – like the projected cost savings to the state – never existed.
Source: Statesman Journal