Illegal Immigrants Strain Jail Budget

Illegal immigrants strain jail budget
County officials say the solution lies with the federal government

By Ashley Dickson
The Summit Daily News (CO), July 15, 2008

Summit Couty, CO — An increase in illegal immigrants held at the Summit County Jail is stretching county budgets, and Sheriff John Minor is running out of ideas of how to accommodate a federal mandate with limited funding.

Sheriffs offices throughout the state have been feeling the pressure to hold arrested illegal immigrants for longer periods since 2006, when the state adopted a law requiring police to notify U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement if they believe an arrested individual is in the country illegally.

The federal agency has three business days to take a suspected illegal immigrant into custody after an arrest has been made, and during that period, local law-enforcement agencies are not reimbursed for their costs, according to ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok.

'In my mind, the entire immigration system is broken,' Minor said.

'The dollar amount it takes to house all these inmates on ICE holds is phenomenal, and I resent the fact that our legislature seems to be ignoring the issue.'

Sheriffs offices statewide are required to report the number of ICE holds they have each year and, so far, this years total in Summit County is at 54 and increasing daily.

Breaking down the numbers

At its capacity, the jail can hold 90 inmates, and the cost to hold each inmate per day is roughly $70, according to Minor.

'Jail administrators in Colorado see a crisis looming on the horizon because the ICE holds are really clogging up the system, and its costing money,' Summit County Jail Capt. Erik Bourgerie said.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance, in conjunction with ICE, does provide grants from the State Criminal Alien Assistant Program for those sheriffs offices feeling the financial pressure. Yet, funds vary year-to-year and are never guaranteed.

'The grants help, but it can sometimes take a long time for funds to get appropriated,' said Don Christensen, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado.

'Some counties have had to wait up to six months to get reimbursed through grants, and a small county on a small budget cant run like that.'

The Summit County Sheriffs Office has been receiving SCAAP grants since 2005, and last years $119,000 grant was nearly double what was allocated in 2006.

But the money covers only about $45 per inmate each day, and the remaining $25 per inmate is picked up by the sheriffs office.

Looming budget cuts

County commissioners have begun discussing a potential 4 percent to 5 percent budget cut for next year and acknowledge that the sheriffs office tends to get hit the hardest.

'The federal government is famous for unfunded mandates,' County Commissioner Tom Long said.

'You need to do what the state tells you to do, but then there is no funding to back it. We try to do our best, and thats about all we can do.'

Should the county decide to go forward with a planned 4 percent budget cut, it would equal an $80,000 loss for the jail.

'Basically we would be forced to cut a position, which is catastrophic for us,' Minor said.

'If we fall below minimum staffing in the jail, we'll be forced to shut it down. That's just the reality.'

The jail can operate with three deputies present around the clock. The sheriffs office currently has 18 deputies, four sergeants, and one captain on staff in the jail division.

Searching for a solution

Local county officials and law-enforcement agencies agree that it will take federal dollars to help alleviate the financial stresses generated by ICE detentions at the jail, and sheriffs offices statewide are doing what they can to rally support from the legislature.

'Illegals in the jails have been the main topics at our last two sheriffs conferences,' said Christensen.

'The solution really lies in the federal government, and local agencies shouldnt be burdened with enforcing federal rules.'

Deputies working at the Summit County Jail are 'holding their breath' until the end of August, Minor said, when the county commissioners should decide budget cuts for local county agencies.

'I dont know if we would have to close the jail, but its a serious concern,' Long said.

'Right now, its nothing but questions and some rather large headaches.'