Deportation could up prison space

Legislation that could free up as many as 250 prison beds annually – by immediately deporting some illegal immigrants jailed for nonviolent felonies – is awaiting Gov. Mike Easley's signature.

Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand's legislation cleared the House on Monday by a 103-2 vote. There was no debate on the legislation.

Lawmakers, to respond to a growing population, are looking at several ways to reduce demand and build more space for inmates.

Rand's legislation would let prison officials release some illegal immigrants – who have served at least half of their minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes – to federal immigration officials who would deport them.

If the illegal immigrants returned to the United States, they would have to serve the remainder of their maximum sentence, if caught.

Illegal immigrants convicted of violent felonies would not be eligible.

Parole and correction officials said the legislation would particularly help with illegal immigrants serving time for driving while impaired.

Those inmates can't be released to substance abuse treatment programs because they have been flagged for deportation. That designation prevents prison officials from placing them in minimum security prisons, which have the majority of alcohol treatment programs.

As a result, those inmates can end up getting no treatment and are left to serve the maximum of their sentences at greater cost to taxpayers.

Last month, county jails were holding roughly 600 convicted felons who could not be sent to state prisons to serve their sentences because no space was available.