In June, a convicted drug dealer from Lebanon County was deported instead of having to complete a 25-year sentence that could have kept him in prison until 2032. He was the first state prison inmate in Pennsylvania dismissed from the country before he had completed his minimum sentence.
A law passed last year allows the parole board to grant early release to immigrants who are in the country illegally and serving prison sentences for non-violent offenses.
Raul Felix Pena-Liz, 20, the drug dealer from Lebanon, was just one of 158 immigrants shed by the prison system in the last year, according to the state Board of Probation and Parole.
The mass deportation will save Pennsylvania taxpayers $5.5 million a year, based on the $35,000 to $37,000 the state spends to house each inmate.
Most of those released had already served minimum sentences when the law went into effect, said Sherry Tate, a spokesman for the parole board. Only four — including Pena-Liz — were granted early parole because of the law, which was part of a wide-ranging prison reform passed in 2012.
All four of the convicts released early had been arrested on drug offenses, according to the records. Two have since been deported and two others remain in the custody of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The policy of deporting inmates instead of forcing them to serve prison time is becoming increasingly common as states cut prison costs and reduce overcrowding.
The practice is also controversial. Critics argue that immigrants that have already entered the country illegally are likely to try to sneak back into the United States.
A 2011 study by the conservative Center for Immigrations Studies noted that 46 percent of immigrants deported from the U.S. due to criminal convictions were people who had been previously deported only to return.
Under Pennsylvania’s law, a prisoner caught in the country after having been paroled and deported will be returned to prison to complete the original sentence.
Prosecutors have little objection to the law, said Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of District Attorneys.
“Any angst we would have about it would be eliminated as long as we are confident that we are not going to see them again,” Long said.
If there is evidence that immigrants paroled under the law are returning to Pennsylvania, “then we’d have to revisit it,” he said.
In 2012 testimony before the Senate appropriations committee, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said more than 200 immigrants who had entered the country illegally were then serving time in the state prison system. That was enough to fill a prison housing unit, he said.
Overall, there are more than 50,000 state prison inmates.
Wetzel made the comment in response to a lawmaker wondering about ways to improve the prison reform bill. Lawmakers responded to the corrections secretary by baking the deportation language into the bill, which was signed into by the governor in June 2012.
John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cnhipa.