A yearlong Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office crackdown on criminal illegal immigrants has alleviated jail overcrowding and, as a result, could keep the county from having to build a new jail.
Directly, county taxpayers don’t have to pay for as many meals, medical treatments and public defenders, but the savings could reach more than $60 million if a new jail is no longer needed.
“One of my main goals was to manage the jail population,” said Sheriff Tom Knight. “I really wanted to avoid (construction of a new jail).”
The sheriff’s office became part of a Department of Homeland Security program called Secure Communities, which assigned Sarasota County two immigration-and-customs officers.
After someone is arrested, those officers use investigative tools, such as an expanded fingerprint database, to identify if the arrestees are illegal immigrants.
In the year since the program began, more than 130 people sheriff’s deputies arrested and jailed were discovered to be in the country illegally.
The immigration officers send those people to Miami to face a judge, who decides whether to deport the offender.
The Secure Communities’ direct savings can be significant, because each Sarasota County Jail inmate gets three meals per day, which costs $2.67 per inmate; medical treatment upon entering the jail and continued treatment if needed; a prosecutor assigned to his case; and, in many cases, a public defender to work with him.
Knight said he hasn’t calculated how much the county has saved through the federal program, but he said it has helped the jail population shrink from more than 1,000 when he was elected in November 2008 to 858 currently.
A similar Homeland Security program, referred to as Section 287(g), has been the subject of civil-rights lawsuits, which claim it leads to racial profiling. The difference between the two programs is that Section 287(g) allows local law enforcement, not federal officers, to enforce immigration law.
Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been employing Section 287(g), and he’s being sued for it.
“We’re using Secure Communities, because I didn’t want to subject citizens to a lawsuit,” said Knight. “I’m following the law.”
It still hasn’t saved Knight from some criticism, though. He said he’s heard from some people who question whether the federal program improperly targets Hispanics.
Locally, people who have been deported come from 16 different countries, said Knight, not just from Latin America.
“It’s got nothing to do with race,” he said. “Those people are committing crimes in this community. I’m going to do anything I can to remove criminals from the county.”
More than 20,000 convicted criminal illegal immigrants have been deported from the U.S. under the Secure Communities program since it was instituted in its first city, Houston, in October 2008.
By May 2009, 50 law-enforcement agencies across the county had adopted the program. Currently, there are 197 agencies that have it, including 24 counties in Florida.