By Volkan Topalli
At each stage of the criminal justice system, the proposed Arizona-style legislative initiatives in Georgia represent a substantial and potentially devastating cost to its citizens, and significant unintended consequences for public safety. The new law would require peace officers to attempt to verify a suspect’s immigration status when the suspect is unable to provide legal identification.
The proposed legislation stipulates that, “A peace officer shall not consider race, color or national origin in implementing the requirements of this [law].” But research demonstrates that it’s nearly impossible for individuals to discount attitudes about race when engaging in such tasks. T
Hence, the legislation likely would lead to racial profiling. It would put police officers in a nearly untenable situation, one where they’d be expected to decide not who “looks like” a foreigner (bad enough), but who “looks illegal,” leading to a spate of unnecessary and costly court proceedings when they get it wrong.
Also, the proposed legislation mandates poor policing. Remember, every time a peace officer pulls over or arrests someone because the officer is mandated to determine whether they’re illegal, that’s time he could be spending looking for or dealing with more serious criminal activity. Despite scandalous anecdotes pitched on radio and TV, academic research reveals that the foreign-born are far less likely to break the law than are average nativeborn citizens — After all, they fear being unjustly deported or otherwise caught up in the justice system. Also, having local law-enforcement implement this legislation would undoubtedly impair community policing strategies, which would harm law enforcement’s efforts to ensure public safety for all residents. Many law-enforcement officials around the nation strongly oppose this type of legislation. They and many of the citizens they protect prefer to focus scarce public resources on fighting crime and promoting public safety, not on tackling immigration enforcement.
We don’t have a court or corrections system capable of handling more prisoners. Given the downturn in the economy, there’ve been massive cuts to the criminal justice system in our state.
While the underfunded and overworked court system processes its way through new arrestees that law enforcement would bring them under this legislation, many of these individuals could spend significant time in already overcrowded jails until the courts decide whether they’ll be incarcerated. Exacerbating the problem, overcrowded detention centers and jails charge the state an added premium of anywhere from $22 to $45 per day per inmate when they hold an inmate because a designated prison is full. It follows that accumulated costs to taxpayers of housing a sudden influx of inmates could be massive.
There’s even more.
When jails exceed maximum capacities, safety becomes an issue. The next time you wonder whether corrections officers have a dangerous job, keep in mind that most prisons maintain an average ratio of 35 inmates to one corrections officer (who cannot carry a firearm). Now, increase that ratio to 50 or 60 inmates per officer ? “Hazard pay” takes on new meaning. The number of state-sentenced prisoners being housed in county jails rose 61 percent between 2008 and 2009. How high will that number jump with implementation of this legislation? And how much will it burden an already-strained and costly (at roughly $12,000-$18,000 per inmate) correctional system?
These are but a few of potential costs and pitfalls of voting in such legislation. In the absence of real research on the implications of the proposed legislation, we’re rushing headlong into implementing a system that may cost much while not making us safer. Processing and serving people through the criminal justice system is expensive, something Gov. Nathan Deal wisely alluded to when acknowledging that imprisoning nonviolent offenders would place a massive financial burden on state corrections.
How much more a fiscal burden and public safety hazard could this legislation become?
Topalli is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Director at The Crime & Violence Prevention Policy Initiative at Georgia State University.