With illegal aliens filling roughly one in 10 state prison beds, lawmakers are eyeing faster and cheaper ways to get them out of the country.
States such as California and Florida have greater numbers of illegal aliens in their prisons.
But Washington state ranks first in the proportion of non-U.S. citizens behind bars, according to the Association of State Corrections Administrators.
Nearly 1,400 state inmates, about 13 percent of the prison population, are not U.S. citizens, the state Department of Corrections says.
Those inmates cost the state roughly $32 million a year.
Most are in the country illegally and may face deportation after serving their sentences. Almost 70 percent are serving time for drug crimes. Nearly 80 percent are from Mexico.
Some legislators want to speed up the deportation process to cut the cost.
As a part of the prison-reform package announced earlier this month, House Republicans proposed “transition camps” to house illegal aliens more cheaply than prison while they await deportation.
The goal is to set up “a fast track process to have the illegal aliens back in their own country,” said Rep. Mike Padden, R-Spokane.
The camps would be similar to the state’s work ethic camp on McNeil Island, which reduces prison sentences for non-violent inmates who complete a rigorous four- to six-month term. Inmates in the camp spend 17 hours a day doing manual labor and attending classes.
Illegal aliens also would serve shorter sentences in the transition camps than they would in prison. Once their sentences were finished, they would be turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation.
The transition camps probably would include manual labor but not some of the classes on anger management and life skills taught at the work ethic camp, said Rep. Ida Ballasiotes, R-Mercer Island.
She is the main sponsor of House Bill 2010, a prison reform package that also cuts prison staff and eliminates some inmate privileges.
Previous efforts to reduce the number of illegal aliens in prison have failed.
Two years ago, lawmakers voted to allow illegal aliens to be deported before serving their full sentences as long as the prosecutor agreed. Prosecutors have refused early deportation in nearly every case since the law was enacted.
“Obviously, the prosecutors and the courts are a little reluctant to authorize early release of people that have committed felonies in this state,” said Tom Rolfs, director of prisons for the state Department of Corrections.
Many states blame the problem on the federal government, which is responsible for the nation’s borders.
Several states, including California and Florida, have taken the matter to federal court, arguing they ought to be reimbursed for imprisoning illegal aliens.
“It’s a federal problem in that, in theory, the federal government is supposed to control the border,” said Chase Riveland, Corrections secretary for the state.
But Riveland said all the lawsuits brought by the states have failed, and Washington doesn’t plan to join the fray. Still, the states have won some relief. Congress last year set aside $130 million to reimburse states for the cost of imprisoning illegal aliens.
Washington expects to get $2 million this year, according to Myra Wall, who tracks federal issues for the state Department of Corrections.
But there’s no guarantee that money will continue in the future. And even if it does, it’s only a fraction of what the state needs.
“Given the numbers of illegal alien offenders in prisons across the nation, it’s not going to go very far,” said Rolfs. “Whatever we get … is probably only going to be a few cents on the dollar at best.”