Photo courtesy ice.gov

By Christopher Zoukis

Rapid REPAT, a little known federally funded program is making headlines in the state of Rhode Island not for its success, but for its failure to be utilized by the state. The Rapid REPAT (Removal of Eligible Parolees Accepted for Transfer) program was initiated by the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the expressed purpose of deporting illegal immigrants that are currently serving prison sentences in the state penal systems. Instead of serving their entire state sentence illegal immigrants can elect to be deported to their country of origin, opening up bed space at already over-crowded state institutions and potentially saving states millions of dollars. At so much benefit, it is baffling why any state wouldn’t sign up for such a program and why they wouldn’t force-feed the program to lighten their numbers of incarcerated illegal immigrants.

Rhode Island, which has been enrolled in the program for a year and a half, has yet to utilize the program to deport a single illegal immigrant. While the reason for this complete failure to utilize a free program from the federal government is not apparent, one questions why the state wouldn’t do so. One would think that the state of Rhode Island, and the taxpayers for that matter, would be excited to have more money for schools, roads, and funding for other much-needed social projects. But one would be wrong. For this simple program has not even been utilized once. This is both a crime against the state’s budget and against the will of the people, not to mention the extra budget shortfalls that come through incarcerating these illegal immigrants. Certainly any thinking person would see this program as part of the answer to Rhode Island’s prison population and to their ballooning corrections budget.

Of course, there are stipulations to participation in such a program that must be met by each potential participant prior to being accepted. They must voluntary apply for the program. The individual has to have already been convicted in a state court, be incarcerated in a state institution, and have already received final orders of deportation. They must also waive any appeals related to their orders of deportation and state court convictions. Furthermore, they must agree not to re-enter the United States after deportation. Any person that breaks their agreement and reenters the United States would face  severe punishment of up to 20 years in a federal prison. They are basically given a free ticket home…as long as they promise to never come back. What prisoner wouldn’t want such an opportunity?

While this sounds great for both the prisoner and the state, there are several issues that come to mind. For starters, what is to stop these illegal immigrants from coming back to the United States and committing more crimes on our streets? The proponents of such a program would certainly tell you that the 20 year potential sentence is the deterrent. But being a proponent myself, I worry that this is no deterrent. My reasoning for this is that I think that the potential 20 year sentence would be in the back of the person’s mind, not in the front stopping them from coming back.

Besides what would stop them from coming back, is the cost of future crime on our streets worth the monetary savings by deporting them? The worry here is that one of these recently deported persons could come back to the United States and commit some heinous crime. Then our communities would further be victimized by crime that could have been prevented. This brings in the cost of crime; both fiscally and socially.

Besides stopping them from coming back and analyzing the cost of potential future crime, does this program help either the prisoner or the country of origin? I think not. The country of origin is essentially receiving a plane-full of people who are criminals. This is clearly a public safety issue. I could not imagine the US allowing a plane-full of Americans convicted of crimes in other countries to be released into our streets. As for the prisoners themselves, this program certainly doesn’t do them any favors. These people committed crimes against the state or against the state’s citizens. This proves that something is off. By releasing them without any rehabilitative treatment is pure insanity. Someone once told me that insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. By releasing persons who have not only proven to sneak into the US illegally but to also commit crimes while here, we are simply asking to be burned; for them to repeat what they have just done. This brings us back to the 20-year sentence deterrent. If the person was to come back into the US and get caught, and receive a 20-year sentence, then the American taxpayers would be on the hook not only for the new crime, but for 20 extra years of imprisonment.

I’m sure it looks strange that I am voicing these concerns while confessing to be a proponent of such a program. I admit it is a multi-faceted position to be in; conflicted to say the least. I think that we are in a bad position with illegal immigrants in our prisons. I also think that such a program as Rapid REPAT is a good idea. But I think that before persons should be allowed to enroll in such a program that they should be required to go through some kind of rehabilitative treatment. Only by cleaning up what we as a country release from our prison systems will the status quo begin to improve.

With all of this being said, several other states have utilized the Rapid REPAT program much more effectively, saving money for already strained budgets. The removal of 3,612 illegal immigrants from Georgia and 2,700 from Arizona was reported by ICE using Rapid REPAT and a previous program. It is certainly difficult to comprehend such a disparity in results from different states operating under the same program. Puerto Rico was actually the first jurisdiction to sign up in 2008. California, Illinois, New York, and Oregon are among other participating states, but any cash-strapped state could benefit in these uncertain times by easing strains on corrections budgets by eliminating the expense of housing prisoners that will ultimately be deported anyway. The simple answer is that all states should enroll in Rapid REPAT. The difficult solution is in finding a healthy middle ground where both the prison systems benefit fiscally and the countries of origin benefit socially.

Rhode Island signed up for participation in the program following an executive order to crack down on illegal immigrants was issued by Governor Donald Carcieri. With his state facing ever-mounting budget deficits, as all states are, he commented that the state could not “afford to bear the financial burden of providing housing and rehabilitative treatment to inmates who committed crimes while here illegally.” Such sentiments are echoed the country over by other governors and the people themselves. With such political posturing it is confusing that the state has failed to make use of the program even once. Maybe in the near future, Rhode Island, as all of the states in the United States, will come to that utopian middle ground that I was speaking of. Where the states, countries, and people all receive what they want and need.

The program’s motivation can be shown through its fiscal and social realities. Early releases for deportation are easily defensible alternatives considering that these deported persons are not returned to our streets. But when one sees the fiscal realities, that paying to incarcerate these individuals, who are in our country illegally on average costs between $32,000 and $49,300 per year, the true motivation comes to the forefront. Just consider this, extrapolating these figures, even if Rhode Island only had 100 eligible participants that would be between $3.2 and $4.93 million a year still in the coffers of the state corrections budget. But what if 50 states did so? At 100 prisoners per state that would be 5,000 total; an absurdly conservative figure. This would be a savings of $160 million to $246.5 million a year. Funds that had been diverted for such individuals could be re-appropriated for programs helping to rehabilitate prisoners that will ultimately be returning to society. For any states looking to lighten the load on their corrections budget, this program is an extremely viable alternative. It is too bad that Rhode Island, and the rest of the US, for whatever reason, has not grasped the benefits from a forward-thinking program like Rapid REPAT.

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Sources: Prison Legal News, ICE Fact Sheet, www.bostonherald.com, California State Auditor Report 2009-107.2, San Francisco Chronicle

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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