By Sean Whaley, Nevada News Bureau: Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty said a program the state initiated a few years ago to pardon selected illegal resident inmates so they could be deported to free up space in the prison system was in his view successful.
Hardesty said the review resulted in 106 nonviolent inmates being granted conditional pardons in exchange for a waiver of any immigration hearing and agreement to be deported to their country of origin.
“I think the program was very successful,” Hardesty said. “We have released a few other inmates since then under the same criteria.”
Howard Skolnik, director of the Department of Corrections, said he too believes the program succeeded in its mission. Information provided recently to the ,Pardons Board shows that only two or three inmates released through the program returned to Nevada and re-entered the criminal justice system, he said.
Some members of the Pardons Board, made up of the seven justices of the Supreme Court, Governor Jim Gibbons and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, expressed concern when they began the review in 2007 that many of the inmates might return to Nevada.
Those concerns have not yet materialized to any great degree.
Gibbons supported the release of the qualified inmates as a member of the Pardons Board.
“Absolutely it was a success,” Skolnik said.
Hardesty and Skolnik were asked about the program following questions raised last month about GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval and his light sentencing of some illegal residents while serving as a U.S. District Court judge.
In five of eight instances cited in a recent examination of cases over which Sandoval presided, the individual in question had already been arrested and deported on a prior occasion, yet Sandoval did not sentence the repeat offender to prison time.
Sandoval said the light sentences were imposed as a way to more quickly get the illegal residents deported, and his campaign pointed to the Pardons Board program as an example of a similar undertaking.
“My policy was to get these offenders out of our communities – now,” he said. “If the federal government did their jobs in securing our borders we wouldn’t have to worry about illegal immigrants committing crimes or those that have been deported coming back. It’s as simple as that.”
Dan Bogden, U.S. attorney for Nevada, said his office usually seeks to prosecute those illegal immigrants who return to Nevada who had also previously served time for serious or multiple felony convictions. Those who don’t meet this threshold typically are deported again without going through any additional criminal prosecution in the federal system, he said.
Each case is reviewed individually, and federal prosecutors argue for the appropriate punishment following a conviction, Bogden said.
“The court makes the ultimate call on what it believes is satisfactory or appropriate under the circumstances,” he said.
Virginia Kice, communications director for the Western Regional offices of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, said the agency has created a program for early release and deportation of nonviolent illegal immigrants similar to what Nevada did through its pardons program.
Called Rapid REPAT, for Removal of Eligible Parolees Accepted for Transfer, the program is designed to allow selected criminal aliens incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails to accept early release in exchange for voluntarily returning to their country of origin.
So far Rhode Island, Georgia and Puerto Rico have entered into agreements with ICE for the repatriation program, which was modeled on similar state efforts in New York and Arizona, according to a fact sheet provided by the agency.
Just as with Nevada’s program, only nonviolent inmates are eligible.
If any of the released inmates illegally re-enter the U.S., however, they are returned to the state where they were convicted to serve out the remainder of the original sentences. Additionally, these inmates can be prosecuted under federal statutes that provide for up to 20 years in prison for illegally reentering the United States.
Kice said it is up to states to decide whether to participate. The program can reduce the pressure on prison systems, but there are potential downsides, such as a perception by other inmates or the public that the inmates are receiving more favorable treatment, she said.
Hardesty said inmates eligible for the Nevada pardons’ program were those who were subjected to a hold by ICE who were serving time for non-violent crimes and who were not sex offenders. There was also a requirement that the inmates had served a significant portion of their sentences as punishment for their crimes, he said.
Inmate files were reviewed by the Department of Corrections and the Division of Parole and Probation before being forwarded to the Pardons Board for possible action.
About 470 Nevada inmates fit into this general category, and the Pardons Board reviewed about 200 cases, Hardesty said. Of those, the 106 were granted conditional pardons over the course of several months.
Skolnik said it costs Nevada about $20,000 a year on average to incarcerate an inmate, but the savings to the prison system through the program were likely much less. Actual out-of-pocket costs per inmate average about $2,500 a year for food, medical treatment and other necessities so the program saved a minimum of $250,000, he said.
Hardesty said another benefit of the program was the creation of a more formalized review process whereby ICE now evaluates Nevada inmates more frequently to determine if holds for deportation are appropriate.
ICE also now visits both the Washoe and Clark county jails on a frequent basis to make similar assessments, he said.
Kice said the program in Clark and Washoe counties is called Secure Communities, and is designed to enhance information sharing among federal and local law enforcement to identify non-legal jail inmates for deportation.