BY MARC CAPUTO mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com
Florida officials want to send a message to immigrants who are not U.S. citizens and are doing prison time for nonviolent crimes: Go home. The airfare's on us.
The Florida Department of Corrections and Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican, are discussing the proposal with federal officials as a way to relieve the pressures of immigration and to help curb the explosive growth of Florida's prison population, which could hit 100,000 by year's end.
The go-home offer would extend only to the estimated 2,500 immigrants -- whether here legally or illegally -- who are not violent, are not U.S. citizens and who agree to return to and remain in their country of origin.
''It costs something like $20,000 a year to house an inmate, feed him and watch over him, or we can get rid of these guys for like a $600 plane ticket,'' Bennett said. ``Why would anyone oppose that?''
No one did Tuesday during a meeting of the Senate criminal justice committee, though assistant Corrections secretary George Sapp noted the Legislature and DOC have to work through some red tape.
The governor would likely have to commute the sentences of those who want to leave. And the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency would have to be involved with the handling and transportation of the convicts.
Sapp said a similar ''rapid deportation'' program is in the works in Arizona and New York. Nonviolent inmates in those states have to serve a certain portion of their sentence. Arizona, which has a slightly higher population of noncitizen immigrant inmates than Florida, has deported 1,128 since early 2006 for a savings of $13.7 million, according to Arizona's corrections director, Dora Schriro.
Bennett's proposal, which he plans to turn into legislation for the spring lawmaking session, would likely deport qualifying convicts faster by allowing them to leave almost as soon as they volunteer.
The program would result in shorter sentences for some immigrants who would be deportable anyway. Under current immigration laws, most noncitizen immigrants who do prison time are supposed to be deported after finishing their sentences.
Sapp said the go-home plan would help relieve some pressure on the prison system, which added about 3,000 inmates -- to more than 95,000 -- since the end of the regular 60-day lawmaking session in May.
Not only is crime increasing, judges are sentencing more criminals to ''year and a day'' sentences that call for state prison time rather than local jail time.
About 17 percent of all new inmates are sentenced to year and a day prison terms. Legislators grouse that judges in Hillsborough, Polk, Broward and other counties are doing this to spare their own crowded jails. Judges say the sentencing is simply a result of responding to the Legislature's call for tougher sentences.
Either way, it's costing the state more than expected. Prison officials thought they'd have to spend $220 million to build 5,761 new prison beds next budget year. Now, they say, they'll likely have to spend $649 million for 10,003 beds.
Senators such as Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, want to examine ways to shift criminals convicted of drug crimes to less expensive treatment centers. The committee agreed with her idea in concept, but then seemed to go in the opposite direction by favorably discussing a proposal to make it a crime to possess a new type of hallucinogenic Mexican plant called Salvia Divinorum.
Bennett said the state needs to concentrate on reducing its prison population, not increasing it.
''We already have a crime problem and immigration problem. This could hopefully settle a little bit of both,'' he said.