UW research questions jail times for inmates under ICE review, while jail says data was flawed

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, says a recent report on inmates facing possible immigration reviews staying longer is “bad social science” that is based on false data. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, says a recent report on inmates facing possible immigration reviews staying longer is “bad social science” that is based on false data. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

The University of Washington Center for Human Rights held a press conference at UW-Tacoma earlier this month to outline conclusions and recommendations about how Pierce County handles immigrant detainees in the Pierce County Jail that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents believe are not legal residents.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has called the research “bad social science,” particularly since the department was not involved in, or allowed to comment on, the research to address the assumptions before it was released at a public event.

The Sheriff’s spokesman, Ed Troyer, said the researchers simply submitted a four-line request for raw data without explanation or departmental definitions of that data.

“Their numbers are extremely flawed,” he said. “Putting out false data like this is actually going to scare people away from Pierce County.”

The research report, “Unequal Justice: Measuring the Impact of ICE Detainers on Jail Time in Pierce County,” concluded that jail inmates with ICE detainer requests are spending more than three times as long in Pierce County jails than defendants without questions concerning their immigration status. The report further concluded that Latinos in Pierce County were much more likely than any other group to be targeted by ICE agents. The findings largely parallel similar research on King County Jail years ago and other research from around the country. The UW research looked at Pierce County since it is the second most populated county in the state and responded promptly to the researchers’ request for information and inmate data.

“This issue is not just an issue in Pierce County,” researcher Phil Neff said.

The research looked at inmate booking and release data from Pierce County between 2016 and 2018. During that span, according to the report, more than 188 inmates were the subject of ICE detainer requests.

“Statistical analysis shows that, when controlling for other factors, inmates with an ICE detainer on their booking sheet were detained 3.7 times longer than inmates without detainer requests, a disparity which raises significant human rights concerns,” the report stated.

“These findings provide compelling evidence that ICE detainers significantly impact the amount of time inmates spend in jail. However, it is possible that these differences stem from case and individual characteristics, rather than from ICE detainers themselves. Of course, if Pierce County is not holding detainered inmates past their scheduled release date, this data doesn’t tell us why or how they are still staying longer periods behind bars.”

People without detainers spent 26.85 days in jail on average, with a median jail stay of 3.15 days, while people with detainers spent an average of 73.62 days in jail, a median of 34.77 days, according to the research.

Most counties in Washington no longer hold inmates past their release date on ICE detainers, though other forms of coordination between jails and immigration investigators continues, according to the report, such as jails notifying ICE of an inmate’s release date. That information, however, is readily accessible to the anyone since most jails, including Pierce County, post jail rosters on their websites that lists inmate names, charges and if they have an immigration holds.

That last fact could be a reason for at least some jail times since inmates targeted for immigration reviews could not be receiving bail offers because the bail bond companies could see those inmates as flight risks. Inmates could also be choosing to stay in jail rather than bond out, since they know ICE will be notified about their release anyway.

It is also a matter of what Troyer points out as flawed data, since the jail only lists those immigration holds the jail will honor, not those with just detainer requests without court orders and other agencies can request those holds. The jail doesn’t list what agency makes a hold request.

Sheriff Paul Pastor has long been on the record publicly and officially saying that the county would not honor detainer requests without judicial warrants or court orders, and that counties have no legal obligation to notify ICE of an inmate’s impending release.

Notifications are based on a host of factors including criminal records and public safety concerns completely unrelated to an inmate’s residency status.

A detainer, or “immigration hold,” is a request from immigration officials to a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency about an inmate currently in that agency’s custody. The request asks that the inmate be held for up to 48 hours past his or her release date to give investigators time to examine that inmate’s residency status.

The UW research concluded with recommendations to avoid disparities. Those recommendations include that judges should not take immigration detainers into consideration when making bond or sentencing decisions, which is something outside of the jail’s authority. Other recommendations were that the jail should stop listing the immigration holds in its public records system, and that the jail should limit jailhouse interviews only to cases where ICE has obtained a court order. Jail inmates should also be fully informed of their Constitutional rights talking to ICE agents during those jailhouse interviews.

“This is important because in many cases, ICE agents use these interviews to obtain information necessary to file a detainer — and from the detainer flow the unequal justice processes discussed here,” according to the report.

The research found no evidence that the number of detainer requests has anything to do with the jail’s proximity to the Northwest Detention Center on the Tideflats, where people undergoing immigration reviews are detained.

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