Faced with the dilemma of conflicting state and federal mandates, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said he will adhere to newly enacted state law requiring that law enforcement agencies not honor federal immigration detainers placed on inmates at county jails.
In doing so, Jones is bucking federal law and overturning a practice long held at the Sacramento County Main Jail. But Jones said he made the decision in part to build trust among communities whose members might otherwise fear that by calling the Sheriff’s Department, they could risk deportation.
“My concern is not with the enforcement of federal immigration law. I have little interest in doing so,” Jones told reporters Thursday. “My greater concern as sheriff of Sacramento County is ensuring victims of crime and people (who need help) ... have the ability without fear to call the Sheriff’s Department and get a response.”
The change in policy follows the Jan. 1 implementation of California’s Trust Act, which dictates that law enforcement leaders not impose 48-hour holds requested by federal immigration officials on inmates who otherwise would be released from custody. There are exceptions spelled out in the law, including suspects who have been convicted of violent offenses.
Previously, Jones and many other California sheriffs would hold an inmate for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers’ review for up to 48 hours after their scheduled release. Those holds would be placed on inmates who were flagged when their fingerprints or identities were cross-checked with federal databases.
Any deportation proceedings initiated afterward were conducted separate from and, in most cases, after criminal proceedings had concluded, according to ICE officials.
Critics have long argued that the practice ensnared low-level offenders or innocent people in deportation proceedings and broke up families. The most recent version of the Trust Act – an earlier attempt at reform failed – was borne out of a desire to reserve the practice for the most dangerous offenders.
Initially concerned about the supremacy of federal law over state law, Jones said ICE officials assured him they do not intend to challenge the Trust Act or similar legislation in other states.
“That gave me the license I needed” to adhere to state law, he said.
Jones said it is possible that “holes” in the latest Trust Act, Assembly Bill 4, could result in the release of offenders who go on to commit other crimes. But he said the holes are far fewer than in the earlier version of the law, and that the law is generally a good one.
Some sheriffs in California had begun exercising much greater discretion in honoring ICE hold requests even before the passage of the Trust Act. Jones said he began reviewing his own department’s policy after the first Trust Act died, but ended up tabling revisions when the revised version of the bill began to gain traction.
Jones said officials at the Main Jail have been doing their best to comply with the Trust Act since the law went into effect at the beginning of this year. While he has established general guidelines for his department, he said a more specific policy will be penned into the books in coming weeks.
Despite the policy change, Jones said he expects only a “finite group” of inmates will be affected. He said the Main Jail handles 58,000 bookings a year and that only a very small number ended up with ICE holds under the old policy. Specific figures were not available Thursday.
The ACLU of Northern California, which was a sponsor of the Trust Act, applauded Jones’ policy change. In a statement, however, the organization argued that the law does not conflict with federal law, as Jones indicated.
Jones is not the first California sheriff to opt for adhering to the state law over federal law, despite opposition by several statewide groups, including the California State Sheriffs’ Association, to the Trust Act. He said he is unsure of the consensus of his peers, but that he expects to see more follow the same course.
In a statement released Thursday, the Sheriffs’ Association appeared to maintain its opposition to the law: “Victims of crime, regardless of immigration status, deserve justice under the law and protection by law enforcement. Our chief concern with the enactment of AB 4, however, remains that dangerous criminals will be released into local communities and endanger the lives of others. Perpetrators of crime against members of local communities should not be shielded from consequences, which can include criminal, civil, or administrative proceedings.”
ICE officials also released a statement in response to Jones’ stance, saying the agency “will continue to work cooperatively with law enforcement partners throughout the State of California as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities through the identification and removal of convicted criminals, public safety threats or other priorities.”
Jones, too, said his department will continue to work with ICE and that those officers “are not the enemy.” Those officers will have to pay greater attention to inmate release dates, he said, without his agency’s help.
Call The Bee’s Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @Kim_Minugh.