$5 million (and counting) to jail "human cargo" of smugglers under AZ law

Associated Press photo

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas boasted at a press conference this week that his office has now prosecuted 750 people under the state's two-year-old human-smuggling law.

Against the wishes of the very lawmakers who wrote the law, Thomas has mostly convicted the "human cargo" of smugglers (as he calls them) who have conspired with the actual smugglers to enter the country illegally.

There's no evidence that this heavy-handed approach has slowed smuggling in the Phoenix area one iota. But doing the math, the program sure has been costly:

County taxpayers have ponied up about $5 million just to jail those immigrants for three months each.

Thomas calls it "my own no-amnesty policy." He's netted these prosecutions with the help of Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which is the only law agency in the state arresting average illegal immigrants based on the state's human-smuggling statute. Thomas and Arpaio came to this arrangement after Thomas decided to look at the 2005 smuggling law through the conspiracy lens.

Nearly all of those charged with this crime have pleaded guilty, then been sentenced to time served (usually about 90 days, Thomas says), and probation. A plea deal is a no-brainer for the illegal immigrants sitting in Arpaio's jails eating green bologna for three months. Denied bail, the illegals would rot for months in jail before their cases ever came to trial, if they chose that route, not to mention the possibility that the defendants would be found guilty in a jury trial.

As it is, the 90-day, time-served sentence doesn't come cheap. Increasing costs of housing inmates has boosted the per-diem rate to $73.46, according to a report by the Maricopa Association of Governments. It also costs just under $200 to book each inmate into jail. And because all of these arrests were done by the Sheriff's Office, the county isn't reimbursed by any other government entity for the inmate costs.

That's where the $5 million figure comes from: 750 times the per-diem, times 90 days each.

That's a lot of change for what's essentially a feel-good program for people who want to see Mexicans hassled.

But it's a program that's apparently here to stay, whatever the cost. On Thursday, the Arizona Court of Appeals issued a unanimous ruling backing Thomas' interpretation of the law.

"The language of the conspiracy and human smuggling statutes in effect at the time of Appellant's offense is clear and unambiguous, and those statutes, read together, plainly allow the person smuggled to be convicted of conspiracy to commit human smuggling," the three-judge panel wrote.

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