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Report: number incarcerated for immigration offenses skyrocketing

After U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for a sharp reduction in the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders in federal prisons, you may have thought our prison population would actually decrease once his plan was put in place. That might not be true, according to a new analysis of federal incarceration data. Instead, the federal government may simply replace non-violent drug inmates with non-violent immigration offenders.

According to the analysis as reported this week by the Huffington Post, the number of people incarcerated for immigration offenses -- primarily illegal entry or reentry -- grew by an astonishing 10 percent between 2010 and 2011, and that doesn't even count people held in detention centers but not criminally charged.

In 2010 alone, the Bureau of Justice Statistics admits, more than 80 percent of those convicted of federal immigration offenses were sent to prison -- for a median average of 15 months. So far this year, more than 60,000 people are being held in federal prison after being convicted chiefly for an immigration offense.

What is going on? In 2005, Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security under the Bush Administration, initiated a program called "Operation Streamline," which toughened U.S. policy on unauthorized immigration. Instead of merely deporting unauthorized immigrants or holding them in detention centers as had been done throughout our history, the government would now have the option of prosecuting them for illegal entry or reentry in federal court -- and sending them to federal prisons.

Today, people incarcerated for immigration offenses make up 11 percent of the federal prison population, while drug offenders still comprise 46 percent. That may not be true for long. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of inmates serving a year or more for an immigration offense grew by 10 percent, while those serving time for drug offenses fell by 5 percent.

The problem is especially stark on the U.S.-Mexico border. For example, in the federal district court for Texas's southern district, nearly 90 percent of all new federal prosecutions were for illegal entry or reentry.

"It's the drug war all over again," says the director of the nonprofit Justice Strategies. "It's what's driving the market in federal prisons."

Yes, the head of Justice Strategies did say "the market in federal prisons." That's because those convicted of federal immigration offenses are largely being held in prisons operated by private companies.

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