TWO months after Florida sued the federal government for the cost of receiving illegal and legal immigrants, the state has become the first in the country to cut short prison sentences for undocumented immigrants.
Florida will commute the sentences of 500 illegal immigrants who committed nonviolent crimes and have the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deport them. The move is expected to create space amounting to one state prison to house more violent criminals and save the taxpayers' money.
Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) and his Cabinet on Wednesday approved the agreement, worked out over several months with federal officials in Washington. The agreement is the first of its kind, INS spokesman Lemar Wooley says.
Florida's 54,000 prison capacity is overloaded, forcing the state to release thousands of inmates after they serve an average of 42 percent of their sentences. ``It costs $15,000 to keep each of the criminal aliens in jail [per year]. The governor wants to use the space for violent criminals,'' says Ron Sachs, the governor's communications director.
The state has 2,700 undocumented aliens in its prisons, the INS says. The INS intends to send 125 of the inmates back home within 30 to 60 days, Mr. Wooley said.
The prisoners being sent home come from 16 Latin and Caribbean countries: A majority of them were arrested on drug trafficking charges and drew long prison sentences.
About 700 Cuban felons who came to the US during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 are not part of the arrangement. The US does not have a deportation treaty with Cuba.
THE governor and all but one of six of his Cabinet members approved the deal. State Treasurer Tom Gallagher - a Republican seeking his party's nomination for governor this fall - voted against it, saying the state is sending a wrong message to foreign drug dealers coming into the state.
The deportations are part of a larger plan Governor Chiles is pursuing to reduce the accumulating cost of providing health and education services for illegal immigrants in the state.
In a report released by the governor in March titled ``The Unfair Burden: Immigration's Impact on Florida,'' the governor lamented that immigration is entirely the responsibility of the the federal government, but Washington pushed the responsibility to the state. In April, Chiles sued the federal government for $2.53 billion in costs piled up since 1980 from receiving immigrants.
Governor Chiles is seeking reelection this fall.