Arizona immigration law costs and savings

Jul. 11, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

The upcoming enforcement of SB 1070 has caused many illegal immigrants to flee Arizona. The scope of the monetary effects depends on how much of the illegal-immigrant population leaves. Here's a look at the effects of various exodus scenarios:

Crime and courts
Public opposition
The safety net
Wages and prices

Staff writers Alia Rau, Ginger Rough and Yvonne Wingett contributed to this report.

As much as any aspect of the new immigration law, its impact on police, jails and the justice system is little more than a guess. "Nobody has an idea as to what it's going to mean," said Amy Rex, the criminal-justice project manager for Maricopa County. "The county is looking at what we need to do. It's just that there are a lot of moving parts."

Local police and courts around the state could face a torrent of new misdemeanor cases. If they do, it will push up county jail populations. The law carries up to a 20-day jail sentence and $100 fine.

County authorities estimate that 19 percent, or 24,700, of the 130,000 inmates booked into the jail annually are illegal immigrants, Rex said. The cost to house each inmate for 20 days is about $1,600.

If the number of illegal immigrants booked into the jail rises 10 percent and each inmate serves 20 days, it would cost taxpayers an extra $3.8 million annually.

If the departure of many illegal immigrants causes crime to drop and jail bookings of them decline by 5 percent, taxpayers would save about $2.4 million, based on the current average jail term of 25 days.

Breaking the new law is a misdemeanor, so it seems unlikely to have a sizable effect on state prisons, which typically house felons. A 5 percent change in the 6,100 illegal immigrants in state prisons, for example, could cost or save taxpayers about $6.6 million.

Any cost changes figure to be dwarfed by the amount Arizona is underfunded by Congress each year for incarcerating illegal immigrants who commit felonies or are repeat offenders, state officials say.

The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program provided Arizona and its counties $19 million in fiscal 2009, according to the U.S. Justice Department. There are estimates that the Arizona Department of Corrections alone spends at least $130 million imprisoning illegal immigrants annually.

Gov. Jan Brewer hopes SB 1070 will shrink prison costs as illegal immigrants flee the state, said Paul Senseman, a spokesman for the governor.

There are mixed reactions in police circles as to what the law's effects will be.

Mark Spencer, president of a Phoenix police union, has predicted the law will have little effect on the state's largest city because officers already use a departmental policy that gives them authority similar to what is in the new law. Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris says the law will corrode relations with the Hispanic community and divert police attention from more-pressing duties.

Interim Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley has said that prosecuting the cases could be more difficult because of questions involving rules of evidence, standards of proof and the 70-year-old federal statute the law is built around.

Apart from SB 1070, Romley has said he will be more selective than his predecessor in prosecuting cases involving illegal immigrants. In minor cases, he will alert federal authorities rather than bring state charges, a policy shift that could affect jail and court costs in Arizona's most populous county. ... state.html