By RYAN GEORGE
The Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Salt Lake 3rd District Court are cooperating with each other on a new program that will hasten the deportation of illegal aliens convicted of drug dealing.
The coordinated federal and state effort is in response to dramatic increases in drug trafficking by illegal aliens in Salt Lake City, where 85 to 90 percent of the drug-related arrests are illegal aliens, said a Salt Lake Police Department official.
The program also imposes strict penalties on illegal aliens convicted of felonies or class A misdemeanors who choose to re-enter the United States, requiring the average offender to serve five to six years in a federal penitentiary.
The deportations are intended to free up much needed jail space in the Salt Lake area, allowing law enforcement officials to keep drug offenders in jail long enough to go through the judiciary process as opposed to being released after 24 hours under the Federal Consent Decree, which prevents jail overcrowding.
“Basically, they’ve been getting off scot-free because of our jail situation,” said Captain Roger Winkler of the Salt Lake Police Department.
The jail system in Salt Lake has been described as a revolving door, where those people arrested and jailed for non-violent crimes, like drug dealing, are allowed to go free under the Federal Consent Decree, without serving as much as a full day in jail. After their release, the criminals often return to the streets to continue their illegal activities.
“These criminals know the system. And every time we arrest them they have a different name,” Winkler said.
Under one of the deportation programs, called stipulated deportation, an illegal alien brought up on felony drug charges may plead guilty to a Class A misdemeanor instead. The felon is then offered stipulated deportation from Salt Lake City directly to Mexico in exchange for waiving a right to a deportation hearing, which takes place in Denver.
The previous program required all illegal aliens to be transported to Denver for a deportation hearing.
Another program, called expedited deportation, allows illegal aliens already convicted of felony drug charges to be expedited without requiring a deportation hearing in Denver.
“It speeds up the whole entire process,” said Wayne Kirkpatrick, INS supervisory special agent. “Felons will only be in Salt Lake for three weeks and then they will go straight to Mexico.”
The changes that have taken place in the INS, allowing Salt Lake agents to bypass the Denver deportation hearing, have largely been the result of pressure put on the Department of Justice by Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett. The senators were also instrumental in getting more funding and more staffing for the INS in Utah.
“Utah is experiencing a growing problem with criminal illegal aliens, a problem some in Washington have failed to realize is not limited to border states,” Hatch said.
Cooperation between the Salt Lake 3rd District Court and the INS occurred after Associate Presiding Judge Robin Reese and Judge Dennis Fuchs approached the INS to see if there was a way they could improve the criminal justice situation through cooperation.
The new program gives the defendant an incentive to plead guilty a little sooner, Reese said. As a result, they can be deported sooner as well, creating more space in the jails for other offenders, Reese said.
As part of the judicial process, the arrested illegal aliens are fully advised of their rights by the Legal Defender’s Association, a court appointed defense for people who cannot afford legal counsel.
The legal defenders fully explain the plea bargain option available, the right to waive the deportation hearing and the consequences of returning to the United States after being convicted of a drug offense.
“Our experience has been that most clients have elected to take the plea and get out of jail so that they can go home sooner,” said John Hill, director of the Legal Defender’s Association.
Since the start of the new program in March, 63 illegal aliens have been arrested for drug-related crimes. Of those 63 persons, 32 were first-time offenders who agreed on the plea bargain to lower the charges to a Class A misdemeanor, which would allow them stipulated deportation, Winkler said.
Thirteen of the 63 arrested had already been convicted of a felony and will be prosecuted for aggravated re-entry, which is a federal crime. The remaining people will be transported by the INS to Denver for a deportation hearing, Winkler said.
The INS will have transportation available to deport convicted illegal aliens once a week.
In 1996, 1,200 illegal aliens were transported from Salt Lake City to Denver. The INS has the capacity to deport up to 100 people per month, said Meryl Rogers, INS supervisory special agent.