It took only a few minutes one Monday in July for Idalia Aguillon, a Beverly Hills investment counselor, and her 62-year-old mother, Sofia, to plead guilty and be placed on probation for smuggling an illegal alien through the San Ysidro border crossing the day before.
The women--who claimed they had simply done a favor for a hitchhiker in Tijuana--should have been back in their Los Angeles home a few hours later. Instead, two days and two nights passed before a release order arrived at San Diego's Metropolitan Correctional Center from the U.S. District Court in San Diego, one block away. Only then did jailers set the women free.
It was a nightmarish wait, according to Aguillon, 29. Hour after hour, the women--neither of whom had a prior criminal record--tried to convince jailhouse guards that a magistrate had ordered them released, she said. But jail officials showed little interest in their tearful complaints.
"It was, 'You're here and that's tough. Your release papers never got up here, so it's your tough luck,' " Aguillon recalled last week. "We were just incredulous. It was incredibly emotionally difficult."
Experience Not Unique
The women's experience was hardly unique. According to court records, bureaucratic snafus have left dozens of defendants and material witnesses locked up for as long as seven weeks after they were due to be freed from San Diego's federal jail, one of the nation's busiest.
Defense lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union blame institutional callousness and racism for the delays. Most delays involve illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America or, occasionally, U.S. citizens of Hispanic heritage, like the Aguillons.
"They're not treated as regular human beings," said Gregory Marshall, legal director of the ACLU's San Diego chapter, which is considering filing a class-action lawsuit seeking cash damages for inmates held beyond their release dates. "They're being treated as a subspecies. It's, 'They all look alike. Their names all sound alike. Who cares if they get released tomorrow or next week?' "
Federal officials acknowledge some delays. But they say the numbers are minuscule in relation to the 7,500 defendants and 2,000 or more material witnesses processed through the San Diego district court each year. And they say paper work foul-ups--not racism or any other kind of malevolence--are to blame for the occasional problems.
"I don't care who it is. We do care," said Al Kanahele, warden of the 540-bed federal jail.
"Although these guys are convicts and criminals, we try to use a humane approach to treating them," he said. "Once in awhile, one will fall through the cracks. But as a whole, I think we're doing a pretty good job of releasing these guys."
Federal Defenders, the public defender agency for San Diego's federal district court, has been complaining about the release delays for four years.
Late in 1985, a spot check by the agency of court records identified 27 instances in a 20-month period of delays stretching from three days to nearly seven weeks.
Several weeks ago, Federal Defenders sent Chief U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. a new list of 20 cases from the previous five months, including release delays of two to 20 days.
"It's an outrage," said Judy Clarke, the agency's executive director. "It's a lack of concern. It's a lack of interest in human dignity. So what they're illegal aliens? So what they committed a crime? They're human beings."
Material Witnesses Victims
In fact, most of the delays uncovered by Federal Defenders have involved
people not charged with any crime. Rather, there is slow release of material witnesses--typically, illegal aliens held to testify against the smugglers who carried them across the border.
Though federal law allows them to post bail and go free pending the smugglers' trials, officials say most of the witnesses remain in jail or in contract detention centers until the cases in which they may testify are resolved.
But sometimes the witnesses--whose jailing, like other inmates', costs the federal government about $30 per day--are seemingly forgotten.
Nabor Valdez-Duran was in the trunk of a car stopped July 3 at the U.S. Border Patrol's checkpoint on Interstate 5 at San Onofre. Court records say the illegal alien was held to testify against Mateo Hernandez-Maldonado, a Mexican national who was driving the car, and his companion, Cheryl Brown, both of whom were charged with alien smuggling.
On July 6, Brown was released on probation and Hernandez-Maldonado was sentenced to 40 days in jail after each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor aiding and abetting charge. Because of the guilty pleas, Valdez-Duran never had to appear in court to testify against them.