Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Criminal Justice System Expands for Immigrants

SCAAP is part of the federal-state-local criminal justice complex. It’s another add-on federal-aid bureaucracy aimed at keeping local and state governments marching together with the federal government in the “war on crime.” Although it targets the costs of jailing “criminal aliens,” SCAAP is just one of hundreds of federal programs that bolster a criminal justice system that puts a premium on removal of certain elements of society – largely African-American, working-class, and increasingly Latino – rather than treatment, rehabilitation, or job creation, as a type of risk-management program for social order. Reviewing the new role of the federal government in criminal justice, a 2002 report by the Congressional Research Service noted, “In the past two decades, Congress has been extending federal jurisdiction over crime control to areas once considered to be within state and local jurisdiction, and enlarging federal support of state and local efforts to combat crime.” Not only is the increasing prominence of the “criminal alien” theme linked integrally to the “get- tough” methods and ideology of the war on crime, it is also closely connected to the enduring “war on drugs.” According to a year 2000 report by the Urban Institute, during the first several years of SCAAP, the most common offenses for which illegal aliens were convicted were drug offenses in all states except Florida. For states distinguishing among types of drug offenses, drug trafficking was more common than drug possession, except in Texas. It may be that local and state governments could just as well appeal to the federal government for assistance to compensate for the high incarceration costs incurred locally because of the federally driven “war on drugs.” But what about the contention that states and local governments merit federal compensation because they are paying for services to immigrants who are really the charges or responsibility of the federal government? It is specious, disingenuous, and opportunistic. Studies have consistently demonstrated that undocumented immigrants have lower crime rates than citizens. According, for example, to a 2005 study by Rutgers University, “Despite the widespread perception of a link between immigration and crime, immigrants have much lower institutionalization (incarceration) rates than the native born.” While it may be true that crime rates among undocumented immigrants are perceptibly increasing, especially along the border, in the last several years as the process of immigration is increasingly tied to drug flows and human smuggling and affected by tighter border control, the fact remains that undocumented immigrants have a markedly lower incidence of violent crime behavior. In other words, communities with a high percentage of unauthorized immigrants are not disproportionately subject to high-crime vectors. It’s certainly true that the federal government has responsibility for immigration regulation and enforcement. But it is not as if illegal immigration represents a drain on community and state revenues. Illegal immigrants, like all residents, pay taxes that are used to pay for government services, including jails and prisons. The sales tax, property tax, and user-fee revenues contribute to the general funds that offset correctional services. Without the economic activity and community vitality of immigrant communities in many of the states complaining the most about the planned SCAAP termination, these communities would be stagnant and withering. While a case may be able to be made that undocumented immigrants, because of their lower wages and large families, don’t pay their fair share of school or social services like emergency room treatment, there is no persuasive data that demonstrates that jailing undocumented immigrants for violent crimes or repeated misdemeanors (as stipulated by SCAAP criteria for reimbursement) imposes a disproportionate and unfair burden on the communities that now demand SCAAP reimbursements. A 2007 report by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that there was likely only a modest negative impact of unauthorized immigrants on states and counties when measuring taxes paid and services received. Not assessed by this study or others measuring taxes paid and costs are the beneficial impacts of low-paid, hardworking immigrants on the local economies and consumer goods nor the development benefits of immigrants settling in abandoned or deteriorating areas of communities.

Photo: West Texas Detention Center, Sierra Blanca, Texas (run by Emerald Correctional)

Next: SCAAP Hangs On

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