The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently reported that most of the cost of imprisoning “criminal aliens” in state prisons systems was paid by state governments. GAO, Criminal Alien Statistics: Information on Incarcerations, Arrests, and Costs (March 2011 GAO-11-187). [A summary in html is also available.]
States, cities, and counties are partially reimbursed for the costs of incarcerating noncitizens who meet specified criteria through the Justice Department’s State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). Importantly, “SCAAP is not intended to reimburse state and local governments for all of the costs associated with incarcerating all criminal aliens.” GAO, Criminal Alien Statistics at 1-2. The GAO defines “criminal aliens” as “noncitizens who are residing in the United States legally or illegally and who are convicted of a crime.” GAO, Criminal Alien Statistics at 6. Among the categories of noncitizens whose incarceration is not reimbursable through SCAAP are lawful permanent residents. GAO, Criminal Alien Statistics at 5.
According to the report sent to Representative Zoe Lofgren (D), ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, and Representative Steve King (R), “selected operating costs (i.e., correctional officer salaries, medical care, food service, and utilities) associated with incarcerating criminal aliens in our nation’s state prison systems totaled $7 billion from fiscal year 2003 through fiscal year 2009. … Based on available appropriations, states were reimbursed for about $1.6 billion of the $7 billion, about 23 percent.” GAO, Criminal Alien Statistics at 37.
Breaking down these figures is helpful. In 2009, for example, these selected operating costs ran at $1.149 billion while states were reimbursed for $198 million. GAO, Criminal Alien Statistics at 38, fig. 19.
Similarly, the GAO reported “that selected operating costs (i.e., correctional officer salaries, medical care, food service, and utilities) per inmate associated with incarcerating criminal aliens in state prisons ranged from about $10,000 in fiscal year 2003 to about $12,500 in fiscal year 2009….We found that, on average, SCAAP reimbursed states about $2,400 per inmate (about 24 percent).” GAO, Criminal Alien Statistics at 39.
In Ohio, where I teach, in 2009 there were 3,879 SCAAP incarcerations. GAO, Criminal Alien Statistics at 63, tbl. 8. At an average price of $12,500, Ohio stood to pay more than $48 million to incarcerate these individuals while being reimbursed (at the $2,400 per inmate average) about $9 million. Using these nationwide averages provided by GAO, Ohio spent $39 million of its own money.
This is data worth considering if for no other reason than the financial constraints under which most states are currently operating. In Ohio and several other states, however, these data are particularly relevant because state legislators are considering increasing state and local policing of immigration law. Given that such policies increase the length of incarceration of immigrants, the financial implications of this report are instructive—and ought to be worrying to anyone concerned about state and local government finances.