Posted on Tue, Jun. 10, 2008
Prison bill would release some inmates to feds
By GARY D. ROBERTSON - Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. --Illegal immigrants serving time for nonviolent offenses in the North Carolina prison system could be paroled early into federal custody for deportation in legislation recommended Tuesday by a Senate judiciary committee.

The bill would make people eligible for release if the Department of Correction had received a final order from federal officials to remove the inmate from the country when the sentence is completed.

The measure could free up an average of more than 250 beds a year in the state's increasingly crowded prison system, state correction and parole officials estimated.

"This will allow these people to be deported from the United States, and we will not have to pay for their (imprisonment) for the extended period of time that we had been before," said Sen. Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, the bill's sponsor.

It would be up to the state parole commission to decide whether to release these illegal immigrants into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

To qualify, prisoners would have had to serve more than half of the minimum sentence for their crimes. Those who are released for deportation also would have to promise not to return to the U.S., or face serving their maximum sentence if caught again.

The legislation also would apply to people convicted of driving while impaired by eliminating a requirement in these situations for prisoners to received substance abuse treatment as a prerequisite for early release.

Often, prisoners who are in the country illegally can't access treatment for alcoholism because their legal status places them in a higher level of security, said Tracy Little, deputy secretary for the Department of Correction.

The department has started identifying hundreds of prisoners who are in the country illegally and will be deported when their sentences are complete. Tuesday's bill would give the parole board the opportunity to release them early to federal authorities.

The bill, which now heads to the full Senate, is the latest bill sought by Rand that would chip away at the 39,400 prisoner population in North Carolina.

A bill sponsored by Rand now on Gov. Mike Easley's desk for his signature would release some ill prison inmates deemed as posing no danger to society. Correction officials said several dozen inmates who are terminally ill or seriously disabled likely would qualify for release.

The House budget approved last week would authorize $45 million to expand three prisons, generating more than 1,000 additional beds.