A New Mandatory Minimum for Illegal Immigration is a Costly Bad Idea
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Senate Republicans plan to bring to legislation to the floor in September that will target so-called “sanctuary cities” that provide a safe haven for illegal immigrants. The bill, according to a Politico report last month, “would block funding for cities and other local governments that decline to cooperate with federal immigration officials.”
There’s a recent wrinkle in that a) doesn’t make much sense and b) could undermine efforts in Congress to reform America’s criminal justice system. In response to the tragic murder of Kate Steinle at the hands of an illegal immigrant, some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, want this proposal attached to the sanctuary cities bill.
“Kate’s Law” would require a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for any immigrant who re-enters the United States illegally. Those who are lobbying for the measure, either professionally or through citizen activism, don’t seem to understand the costs associated with housing federal prisoners.
On average, the annual price tag for incarcerating a federal inmate is around $30,000. Multiplied by five years; that’s $150,000 to incarcerate someone who those pushing for the bill don’t want here, anyway.
Greg Newburn of Families Against Mandatory Minimums notes that this isn’t a small sum, given the number of people incarcerated for illegal re-entry in the most recent fiscal year for which data are available. “According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 16,556 offenders were sentenced for illegal reentry in FY 2014,” Newburn writes, ” 98.6% of those offenders were sentenced to prison; the average sentence was 17 months.”
“If they all received five-year mandatory minimums rather than the average sentences of 17 months, new incarceration costs would be $1.78 billion per year. That’s nearly $2 billion that could be spent on finding, arresting, and prosecuting violent undocumented immigrants that will instead have to be spent on incarcerating people [who’ve re-entered the United States illegally],” he added.
Not only does “Kate’s law” fail to make any fiscal sense, it could undermine movement on criminal justice reform, which is currently a topic of serious discussion in both chambers of Congress. Much of the logic behind this effort is that there are too many people in prison and mass incarceration is too expensive.
Although he’s been a reluctant participant, Grassley led discussions in the Senate Judiciary Committee to bring legislation that would include some mandatory minimum sentences, though the expansion of the federal safety valve, and prison reforms to reduce the likelihood that offenders will engage in recidivist behavior.
Enacting a new and very costly mandatory minimum sentence defeats the purpose of criminal justice reform. In fact, this is how mass incarceration in the United States really took off. Congress enacted harsh sentences, including mandatory minimum sentences, as a reaction to a problem. As well intended as these policies were, they haven’t been an effective deterrent to crime. This proposed mandatory sentence won’t be any different.