Last week I wrote about the enormous number of migrants who face confinement while they are prosecuted for federal immigration crimes. The absolute numbers are astonishing. Almost 100,000 people suspected of engaging in nothing worse than an immigration crime were held in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service in fiscal year 2013 alone.
Today I remain focused on the federal government’s pretrial immigration prison population, but I take a slight different approach. To provide some context with which to understand the number of pretrial immigration crime defendants who are confined, today I turn to how often people suspected of other crimes are detained while criminal proceedings are underway. Thanks to data that the ACLU obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request (and kindly passed along to me), we can understand the USMS pretrial confinement trends over almost two decades from 1994 to 2013.
The data are striking. Immigration crime isn’t just the top reason people end up taken into pretrial detention. It towers over every other category of federal crime. In 2013, for example, 97,982 immigration crime defendants were taken into USMS custody. Compare that to the next most frequent reason, federal drug crimes, which contributed 28,323 pretrial inmates. In 2012, the contrast was similar: 91,521 immigration defendants versus 31,016 drug defendants. Except for immigration crimes, no other category of federal offense came anywhere near feeding USMS jails almost 100,000 people in a single year. Drug offenses peaked at 34,197 in 2003.
Even over the course of this nineteen-year period, immigration criminal charges substantially outpace every other criminal basis for pretrial detention. Whereas 890,517 immigration crime defendants were taken into USMS custody from 1994 to 2013, the next two most frequent bases, drug offenses and supervision release violations, lagged behind (609,923 drug offenders and 408,822 supervision violators were taken into custody during this period).
This is a pattern that isn’t new. Immigration crime has been leading more people into USMS custody since 2004. Furthermore, immigration crime admissions have been on a steady climb since 1994. Every other category has effectively plateaued.
To be sure, immigration defendants spend less time in pretrial detention than do people charged with most other types of federal crimes. As the graph below shows for 2009 to 2013, immigration offenders spent, on average, 68.3 days in detention. In contrast, violent crime defendants spent 217.8 days detained and drug offenders spent 201.0 days. Immigration crime defendants spend much closer to the overall average amount of time detained while criminal proceedings are pending.
Focusing only on immigration defendants, we can see that in recent years they actually spent less time behind bars prior to conclusion of their criminal case than in much of the past. I suspect that this is simply the result of faster processing times for immigration criminal cases that result from initiatives such as Operation Streamline.
The number of people detained on immigration crimes and the amount of time they tend to spend behind bars while awaiting adjudication of their criminal cases are necessary precursors to the following bit of information: how many beds immigration crime defendants fill in comparison to other types of federal defendants. Every year drug offenders fill more beds on a nightly basis, but immigration offenders are not far behind. Starting in 1996, immigration defendants have had the second highest average daily population (after drug offense defendants). The following graph shows how this trend has progressed year after year from 2009 to 2013.
And here is a focus on immigration defendants only.
To me, at least, these data are a stark reminder that immigration plays a massive role in federal criminal policing. In particular, as one of the federal government’s three principal jailers (the other two being ICE and the Bureau of Prisons), the USMS is deeply involved in imprisoning migrants for migration-related activity. Most of the people detained while their criminal cases are pending will eventually be convicted. And when they are, they will be handed over to the Bureau of Prisons for post-conviction confinement followed by transfer to ICE for civil immigration detention.