Arizona expects to pay millions of dollars more to incarcerate undocumented prison inmates because federal funding was slashed by more than half this year, state officials say.
The Arizona Department of Corrections submitted a grant application this month that probably will yield only half the amount the state received last year from the federal government's State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, said Robert Olding, the department's assistant director for programs and services.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of foreign nationals — most of them undocumented — enter Arizona's prison system each year, leaving the state to pay the bulk of expenses for their incarceration.
"The timing couldn't be worse. We're extremely crowded, and budget times are very austere," Olding said. "The more inmates we have, the greater the cost is . . . and the bigger the burden on the Arizona budget and Arizona taxpayers."
The dire funding projections follow a cut Congress made this year to the program, which dropped funding available to states from $550 million last year to $250 million this year.
Although federal funding doesn't come close to covering the states' expenses for incarcerating foreign nationals, border states such as Arizona rely on the program to offset enormous prison costs. The grant application the department submitted last week seeks reimbursement for an estimated $84.3 million spent last fiscal year to house foreign national criminals. Last year, the state received $16 million to partially offset $82.7 million in expenses in 2001.
"It's almost the only funding that's available," Olding said.
Nearly one in seven inmates, or 16.2 percent of Arizona's prison population, are foreign nationals detained by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services for deportation review, according to 2002 statistics from the state Department of Corrections. Mexican nationals make up 91.2 percent of that total, the department said.
If Arizona gets only half the federal funding it did before, the state will be paying a greater portion of last year's bill to incarcerate foreign nationals, prison officials said. The shortfall concerns Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., who said there was no money budgeted for the program this year until he and other lawmakers helped push through a compromise for $250 million.
"There's just not that much appreciation for the problem, and the money wasn't there," Kyl said.
Some state lawmakers are also concerned about the amount Arizona pays for foreign national inmates.
"My concern is we have so many illegals within our prison system, and we don't get a lot of funding from the federal government. Nor has Mexico shown a great interest in bringing them back into the prison system and serving the length of their term," said state Rep. Phil Hanson, R-Peoria, chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Corrections.
One of the major reasons foreign national prisoners do not return to their native country to serve their sentences is because they choose not to, said Donna Clement, administrator of the department's offender services bureau.
U.S. treaties with other countries allow foreign national inmates to apply for a transfer, provided they meet certain requirements of the treaty and the department. The department screens all inmates for eligibility under the treaty, but most decline the chance to apply, Clement said.
Fausto Morales, a Mexican national serving time at the state prison complex in Tucson, said he has turned down opportunities to apply for a transfer several times.
"I have a family right here in Yuma. When I'm done with my time here, I'm going to Mexico," he said.
Morales, who will be deported after his sentence, said that by serving his time here rather than in Mexico, he will have a clean slate when he returns to his native country. Plus, conditions in prisons in Mexico are much worse than in the United States, he said.
"There's nothing nice over there," Morales said. "There's too much violence."
Since the U.S. treaty made inmate transfers possible years ago, the department has received only 217 applications, Clement said. Of that number, 55 were denied, 45 inmates were released or deported before the application process was finalized and just 62 were actually transferred.
Kyl said he, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., plan to introduce an appropriations bill to reauthorize the program until 2011 with increased funding.
"We end up paying that cost for incarceration," Kyl said. "The federal government should reimburse states for what it costs."