More than 50 police and sheriff's departments in North Carolina could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding due to cuts in a program that pays law enforcement for jailing undocumented immigrants.
The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) is a federal program administered through the Bureau of Justice Assistance that provides funds to local law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement receives the money to jail undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of one felony or two misdemeanors. After the inmates have been jailed for four or more consecutive days, they are "ICE-eligible" and federal funds kick in to assist law enforcement with costs exceeding the budget for correctional officers' salaries.
Congress is proposing cutting the program by more than 60 percent—from $360 million to $136 million—by fiscal year 2012.
What does this reduction mean for North Carolina? In 2010, 54 law enforcement agencies received $7.6 million in SCAAP funding; that money would all but evaporate, and local tax dollars would have to pay for incarcerating these undocumented immigrants (see sidebar at right).
Last year, Wake County received $871,000 in SCAAP funding, up from $642,000 in 2009 and $419,000 in 2008, according to county documents. That money goes into the sheriff's office detention budget, but it is not earmarked for specific purposes, according to Phyllis Stevens, Wake County Sheriff's Office public information officer.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance gives law enforcement a lot of leeway in spending SCAAP funds, including salaries and overtime for corrections officers; consultants; workforce recruitment; training and retention; jail construction; and training and education for offenders.
There is no federal audit of how these funds are used; the Bureau of Justice Assistance did not return calls seeking comment.
SCAAP funds are not awarded to local law enforcement agencies until an undocumented immigrant has been incarcerated for four days. But that leaves a funding gap to pay for housing undocumented immigrants who are in jail for less time. Short stays aren't uncommon: Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials have up to 48 hours to pick up an undocumented immigrant from a local jail.
It costs, on average, $70 per day to house one inmate in Wake County Jail.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison says that losing an estimated $600,000 in SCAAP would be in addition to more than a half-million dollars in state reductions in the Department of Correction's budget that could also affect Wake County.
In 2009, Wake County Jail held 123 ICE-eligible immigrants for a total of 8,070 days. The previous year, 62 ICE-eligible immigrants were jailed for a total of 3,605 days.
Harrison says even with the cuts, he is willing to absorb the costs of implementing 287(g), which provides some SCAAP money, and Secure Communities, which is only locally funded.
"I'm willing to take that cost if it's somebody's that's not supposed to be here," he said.
All 100 counties in North Carolina are required by the federal government to enroll in Secure Communities—even though it doesn't fund the program. In effect, counties are not being reimbursed for jailing undocumented immigrants for fewer than four days.
Secure Communities allows local law enforcement to determine the immigration status of people who have been arrested—even for minor violations and even if they are later found not guilty of a crime. The program has serious consequences for law enforcement and crime reporting. Many undocumented immigrants are reluctant to report crimes—either as victims or witnesses—because they are afraid of being deported if they contact the police.
"So here's the SCAAP program that compensates counties for the expense they incur in detaining folks who lack proper legal status who have committed serious offenses, and is a program that seems to be working, and that funding is being cut," said Marty Rosenbluth, an attorney and executive director of the N.C. Immigrant Rights Project. "Yet the federal government is pumping millions of dollars more into Secure Communities, although it is not working as intended, and further is an unfunded mandate as far as counties are concerned because they are not reimbursed for holding people for 48 hours. It doesn't make sense."