Federal Court Program Meant to Fast Track Immigration Cases Being Questioned

San Diego federal judge questions "Fast Track" program meant to save money and time

When a 52-year-old construction worker from Guadalajara faced a federal court judge last March for illegal entry, he was no stranger to the court room. Since 1998, the man had been arrested nine times for illegally entering the country.

Through a plea deal system called “Fast Track,” the man faced a two-year prison sentence for the latest offense. It was less time than he received in 2011 when the same federal court judge sentenced him to 30 months for the same crime.

Court documents show the federal court judge objected, saying “seems to me that if a guy keeps doing the same thing … one would think the penalties would go up, not down.”

Federal Court Judge Larry A. Burns overturned the defendant's plea deal, sentencing the Guadalajara worker to 45 months behind bars, according to court documents. He added, “This isn’t Starbucks where you get your eighth coffee for free.”

The defendant’s court appointed lawyer declined to comment.

The Southern District of California is the fifth busiest U.S. court district. Immigration cases make up 60% of the caseload. According to 2014 data released by the U.S. Justice Department, 41.7 percent of the federal criminal cases U.S. attorneys filed in all U.S. district courts across the nation were in the five U.S. attorneys' districts that sit along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Those numbers are just tracking the more serious illegal re-entry cases, federal data shows. On average, a person is caught for illegal entry and deported 3.2 times before they ever see the inside of a federal court room, according to the data. The federal prosecutions are reserved for criminals who illegally enter the country in addition to committing some other offense, such as drug offenses, theft or domestic violence, according to legal experts and federal court records.

The Southern District of California uses a system called “Fast Track” to handle the huge volume of immigration cases, but court documents show two federal court judges are raising concerns about the process.

Fast Track offers a quick resolution to illegal entry cases, in return for lighter sentences. In 2015, about 27 percent of all cases were handled by the Fast Track Sentencing Unit in the Southern District of California, according to a U.S. Attorney spokeswoman.

“Essentially, you show up, here’s your Fast Track offer, it’s on the table, take it or leave it. If you don’t take it, your sentence is going to be way jacked up,” said Criminal Defense Attorney Patrick Griffin.

Both the U.S. Attorney’s office and Griffin said “Fast Track” preserves court resources, saving time and money.

“There’s a balancing act between do we give these people lighter sentences for not using resources, or do we expend a ton of resources, time, energy to incarcerate people who are eventually going to get deported anyway?” Griffin said.

One federal court judge, Larry A. Burns, has said recently in open court that preserving court resources is no longer a concern because few cases go to trial anymore.

Both Burns and U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy declined an on-camera interview.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, prosecutors are granted full discretion in deciding who is offered a Fast-Track disposition, a break in the previous policy that required the defendant to not have already gone through the Fast-Track system before and not have any serious violent felonies on his or her record.

Griffin said there’s really no simple solution to the complicated problem.

“What the statistics have found is these people simply are not deterred by federal incarceration, and they’re not,” Griffin said. “The numbers back it up. They just don’t sit there and think ‘Oh, I better not do this,’ because for a lot of these people, three square meals a day and having a bed to sleep in is not that much worse than what they’re dealing with when they decide to cross.”

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