Ending Mass Incarceration for Immigrant Families

A recent federal court ruling could have a big impact on the future of the United States’ immigrant detention policy. U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee recently ruled that the current conditions in which immigrant families were being detained violated 18-year-old provisions established by another settlement known as Flores v. Meese.

Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at a US Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. (Reuters/Eric Gay)

The settlement stated that juvenile immigrants cannot be detained for more than 72 hours unless they pose a significant flight risk or danger to themselves or others. Judge Gee found that federal officials “failed to meet even the minimal standard of safe and sanitary” conditions within temporary holding cells. She hopes to enter a nationwide injunction in which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will come into compliance with the Flores provisions by August 3rd. Over 1,700 immigrant families are currently detained within the United States.

Gee’s decision comes after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called for a dramatic increase of detention beds during the summer of 2014, in which an unprecedented number of women and children entered the United States. The large number of migrant families was due to a number of factors – the biggest one being crushing poverty and gang violence in their countries of origin.

This ruling will change the lives of families who come to the U.S. looking for a better life and who are then detained in these privately owned facilities.  It is an example of why our federal  courts matter.  The decision is a step forward in changing the policies on how we treat immigrant families and may signal a change in the larger immigration policy questions that come in the future.

Nebraska’s Investment in Prison Reform Echoes the Goals of the Country

massincarceration“Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” President Obama said after he became the first president to visit a federal prison on July 16th, 2015. Following his excursion to El Reno Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, President Obama has decided to place prison reform as a top priority for the remainder of his term. On a federal level, the President seeks to reform prisons and sentencing – particularly for young offenders – reduce crowding, and ensure that inmates can successfully rejoin society after release.

In Nebraska, State Senators have already begun discussing these reforms for local correctional facilities. Reforms include the reduction of sentences for nonviolent offenders, limiting circumstances for former inmates to reveal their incarceration when applying for jobs, decreasing the use of solitary confinement, and increasing the use of programs for inmates (such as drug treatment, job training, and education) to prevent them from returning to a life behind bars.

These changes will affect the entire state. A 2013 report by the RAND Corporation, a global think tank, found that for every $1 invested in prison education programs, taxpayers saved $4-$5 on average by reducing spending on incarceration, as inmates who engaged in education programs while in prison were 43 percent less likely to engage in another crime.

Decreasing the amount of people in prison over time is key to successfully carrying out these reforms. There are currently 2.2 million people who are incarcerated (on the federal, state, and local level) which is seven times higher than the total two decades ago. In Nebraska, the state prisons, on average, are currently carrying 57 percent more prisoners than they was designed to. Disturbingly, numerous other institutions are far worse off. The Lincoln Diagnostic and Evaluation Center is carrying 185 percent more prisoners than its capacity.

Overcrowding can be dangerous in prisons, as it can lead to violence. For example, the state prison in Tecumseh experienced a riot in May 2015 that left two inmates dead and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. To prevent further tragedies like these, it is clear that something needs to be done. But rather than spending millions of dollars on expanding prison space and preserving the status quo, Nebraska is opting to improve the system.

As all branches of government take on the challenge of solving the numerous problems our prisons face, it is clear that courts matter. The lives of millions will be affected by these changes. For more information on Why Courts Matter go to www.courtsmatterne.org or follow us on Facebook and on Twitter at @courtsmatterne.