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State to stop imprisoning some illegal immigrants for parole violations

March 03, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — California corrections officials say the state will no longer spend the estimated $10 million a year it costs to lock up undocumented immigrants with prior convictions who reenter the country illegally after being deported.

The stance refers to immigrants who had committed crimes in California and finished serving their terms.

In the past, the state kept them on parole after deportation and incarcerated them for four to eight months for violating their parole by reentering the country illegally. But California is facing an order from a panel of federal judges to reduce the population of its overcrowded prisons.

In a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Friday and in a news conference Monday, California corrections chief Matt Cate said the federal government should prosecute illegal immigrants who return to the country after deportation because that is a crime under federal law.

Now, when illegal immigrants are released from state prison and given to federal authorities for deportation, they will automatically be discharged from parole.

"Those short prison stints are not punishment enough for these repeat offenders, yet they cost California millions every year to recycle them through our parole process, exacerbating the crowded positions in our prisons," Cate, secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in his letter to Napolitano. "California can no longer afford this practice."

Michael Keegan, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the agency had received the letter and was reviewing it.

"We . . . will be responding to the state of California through the proper channels as soon as we're done analyzing the information," he said.

Out of 12,000 undocumented immigrants released to federal authorities for deportation in 2007, nearly 1,600 returned illegally and were sent to prison, which cost the state up to $10 million a year, corrections officials said. Under federal law, they could have been prosecuted and given sentences for up to 20 years for returning to the country illegally, Keegan said.

"In far too many cases, when the federal government did not prosecute, the only recourse was a four- to eight-month parole revocation term," Cate told reporters.

Cate said the immigrants use up resources when they are admitted to state prison because they undergo medical and mental health reviews, but their terms are so short there is no time for rehabilitation.

The state has always had the option of dealing with illegal immigrants by turning them over to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to be deported, even if federal prosecutors decline to file charges. State officials, however, preferred sending repeat offenders to prison so they would receive some punishment, said Seth Unger, a spokesman for the state corrections department.

The situation has changed now that three federal judges have said they intend to order the state to reduce its prison population by nearly 60,000 inmates. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month cut $400 million from the state prisons' budget.

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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