Friday, March 13, 2009 | 2 a.m.
A recent congressional report questions whether Metro and police agencies nationwide are using a federally funded program to engage in wide-ranging deportation instead of its intended purpose, ridding communities of violent felons.
Other recent reports from advocacy and research groups say the so-called 287(g) program may give license to local law enforcement to profile Hispanics, and point out that a lack of clear data on outcomes makes it hard to determine whether the $60 million poured into the program is an efficient use of money.
The concerns have caught the eye of the Obama administration, which has called for a review.
Much of the criticism aimed at the program comes from there being a lack of data on who is being snared by the federal-local partnerships across the nation. Even the question of how many people have been deported through the program isn’t being answered.
In the absence of that information, critics say, the program could be spurring police profiling, which in turn can create a chilling effect on cooperation between Hispanic communities and police departments. Also, critics worry that the program is being used to deport immigrants who have committed minor crimes, when it is being sold as a deterrent to violent crime.
The partnerships exist in 67 jurisdictions. The program has been up and running at the Clark County jail since mid-November.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada echoes the concerns indicated in the national reports and, in conjunction with other organizations, is set to make a formal records request about the arrangement between Metro Police and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department in the coming weeks.
Metro Lt. Rich Forbus, who oversees the program locally, says his department has numbers that show the program is working as intended, targeting “prolific criminals, people who are engaged in violent crimes, major crimes.”
Homeland Security spokesman Michael Keegan said his agency spent $74,000 on startup computer costs for the Metro program in fiscal year 2008 and spends $65,000 a year on ongoing computer costs. He couldn’t say how much was spent on the federal training for the 10 Metro officers who consult information in an ICE database when they interview selected inmates as they come into the Clark County Detention Center. The federal government then places “detainers” on those inmates it intends to deport after they have served their jail sentences.
Through mid-February, Metro found 1,297 Clark County Detention Center inmates in the U.S. illegally. Working with the police, immigration officials flagged slightly more than half of those inmates, 663, for possible deportation.
About two-thirds that number, 431, were charged with felonies or gross misdemeanors. The rest were charged with misdemeanors.
About half of the 1,297 inmates, 634, had little to no criminal history, so ICE did not place “detainers” on them, according to Forbus.
But while Metro contends that the numbers show the program is a success, analysts say there are unanswered follow-up questions that make it impossible to demonstrate unequivocally that the program is combating violent crime.
The Metro statistics don’t indicate, for example, whether inmates charged with felonies were actually convicted of those crimes. Also unknown is how many Clark County inmates ICE has deported as a result of this program — Forbus says Metro doesn’t keep those numbers, and Homeland Security doesn’t either.
Forbus says 272 of those under ICE “detainers” are still in Metro’s custody. If that means ICE deported the rest, nearly 400 inmates, then those inmates must have served little to no time, which is at the least confusing, because two-thirds of the group were charged with felonies or gross misdemeanors.
To Judith Greene, criminal justice analyst at New York-based Justice Strategies and author of another one of the recent reports examining 287(g), “the logic falls apart” when it comes to analyzing the effectiveness of the program, including in Las Vegas. Determining whether a given strategy reduces crime is complex, she says, and the principals involved in 287(g) haven’t spelled out what data should be kept to measure outcomes.
Forbus says he doesn’t have the resources to compile more data and would like to have civilian staff for that purpose. Still, “looking at it from the booking perspective, the program’s been very successful.”
Judy Cox of the Nevada ACLU recalls a January meeting of the local nonprofit organization Hispanics in Politics where Sheriff Doug Gillespie spoke about 287(g). Cox’s colleague, Executive Director Gary Peck, asked Gillespie about the absence of information on the outcome of cases and the inability to establish that the program is doing what it is supposed to do.
Gillespie said Metro would be forthcoming with information, challenging Peck to find a “more transparent” police department in the nation.
Cox says the records request her organization has in the works is meant to take Gillespie up on his offer.
Greene, of Justice Strategies, notes that Republican members of Congress testified last week that 287(g) was just fine as a way to have local and state police stand in for the federal government when it comes to immigration.
Democrats, meanwhile, understood that the program was worth supporting only as a law enforcement tool. “There is a lack of clarity a mile wide,” Greene says.
At the January meeting of Hispanics in Politics, the sheriff said Metro could “pull the plug” on 287(g) if it doesn’t work.
In the months to come, critiques of the program could force his hand.