Jul 6, 12:54 PM EDT

Officials: Entry prosecutions success in Arizona

Associated Press Writer

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- Six months after the government began prosecuting some illegal crossers caught by the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican border's busiest corridor, nearly all federal partners involved say the program is working surprisingly well.

The Border Patrol expected Operation Arizona Denial, aimed at deterring illegal immigrants, to go smoothly based on the success of similar zero tolerance programs elsewhere along the 2,000-mile border.

Other agencies, including the U.S. Marshal's Service and U.S. District Court administrators, were hopeful but less certain, worrying about costs and strains on resources.

Only the federal public defender's office, which from the get-go termed the program ill-advised, continues to voice significant concerns.

Those range from issues of competency and asylum to potential constitutional violations in how people are being stopped and interrogated, said Heather Williams, first assistant federal public defender in Tucson.

Amazingly, defense attorney staffing has not been an issue, Williams said. She praised the chief judge for assuring there were enough qualified private lawyers at each step to represent all defendants - six a day per lawyer, at a congressionally approved rate of $100 an hour - beyond the two lawyers her office provides.

But she said, "This cattle-call kind of situation, is that the right way to use the money, is that the right way to use the time?"

Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame said the agency stands behind the effort's deterrent effect.

He suggested that the 70 cases being prosecuted each day already have been a factor in fewer attempted crossings and a significant drop in recidivism. Apprehensions sectorwide are down nearly 15 percent from last year's numbers.

"We're confident that it's going to have the same effect that it had on the other sectors," Adame said.

Despite worries that the number of cases would overwhelm the system, that hasn't happened, said Richard Weare, clerk of the U.S. District Court for Arizona.

"It has worked very smoothly as far as the court is concerned," Weare said. "We are very pleasantly surprised by the success."

All but 10 defendants a day are first-time offenders.

The U.S. Marshal's office must perform a daily juggling act because its prisoner holding facilities in Tucson are at capacity. That will become more acute as illegal entry prosecutions ramp up to a planned 100 a day before year-end.

"One of the biggest issues is the infrastructure of the (Evo) DeConcini U.S. Courthouse, that causes some of the biggest heartaches," said David Gonzales, the U.S. Marshal for Arizona.

Designed to accommodate about 100 prisoners, the courthouse detention area can safely handle about 40 more, he said. But it gets tricky when a woman, juvenile or protected prisoner, such as a material witness, must be housed in separate cellblocks for 12 people.

Still, Gonzales said, "The project appears to be having its desired effect along the border. Now time will tell whether part of it is economically driven and also because of the heat or the publicity, maybe a combination of all of these."

U.S. Attorney Diane Humetewa's office oversees the prosecutions, headed by two lawyers from the Department of Homeland Security whom she deputized to practice as special assistant U.S. attorneys.

"From what I understand, it (Arizona Denial) is working in terms of those cases being processed," Humetewa said.

Each case is treated to ensure individual and procedural rights and because "every attorney has a professional obligation to ensure that justice is done in every case," she said.

That emphasis, provided by U.S. District Court Chief Judge John Roll to all magistrates and judges under his jurisdiction handling zero tolerance programs in Tucson and Yuma's highly successful Operation Streamline, has resulted in more varied sentencings than originally anticipated, Humetewa said.

Misdemeanor sentences can range from time served to six months, depending on circumstances. Generally, there are no fines. Humetewa said she has not heard of a single case nonconviction or plea outcome.

Criminal backgrounds are likely to draw 180-day sentences, and repeat crossers - recidivists - at least 60 days.

Humetewa said judges in some other districts reportedly have taken more of an assembly-line approach to their cases and sentencings.

Private-lawyer costs amount to $8,800 a day or $176,000 a month currently, Weare said.

Targeted first for prosecutions were people caught in a top-priority 15-mile section of the west desert with high trafficking, smuggling, banditry and an 80 percent repeat-entry rate.

As of July, with the priority area extended to 45 miles, the recidivism has dropped to just under 20 percent, meaning either those entering are getting away or once caught, they're not trying again, Adame said.

"We do expect to see even a further drop in the recidivist rate," he said.

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