Legal Aid pushes for change in jail's ICE reporting policy

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Attorneys for the Legal Aid Justice Center are urging the board of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail to stop voluntarily notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, when immigrants are released.

At a jail board work session on Thursday, the Legal Aid attorneys made the case that the policy makes the community less safe.

"When victims of crime in our community and witnesses to crime associate local law enforcement with ICE, they're less likely to come forward if they fear repercussions from immigration enforcement," said Legal Aid attorney Deena Sharuk.

The effort comes seven months after the jail board voted 6-4 to maintain the policy, which has jail officials notify ICE 48 hours before non-U.S. citizens are released.

ICE receives an automatic notice when such individuals enter the jail, but agency representatives said it was difficult to keep track of release dates without the additional voluntary notification.

At the board work session, ICE representatives including Washington Bureau Director Russ Hott told board members that immigration is a civil matter and that courts don't issue warrants in civil cases.

They said that the purpose of the cooperation between the jail and ICE is to enable immigration authorities to assess the risk of the immigrants before determining whether to release them back into the community. Federal authorities, they said, have access to more information about immigrants' backgrounds than local officials.

But Sharuk said most of the immigrants in the local jail haven't been charged with a violent crime.

"The majority of non-U.S. citizens in this jail have not been committing those high-level crimes," she said. "They've been largely nonviolent issues."

She also disputed the notion that without ICE intervention, dangerous criminals would be allowed to roam, saying the U.S. justice system takes care of that when judges deny bail in courtroom proceedings.

"We don't need ICE to swoop in an interrupt that criminal justice process," she said.

Both Charlottesville and Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorneys submitted letters on the matter, presenting opposing views.

Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Platania pointed out that ICE is inconsistent in which individuals it takes into custody and said he did not believe the notification was helpful.

"After examining the data for city cases," he wrote, "I am unable to see the positive impact the current policy has on family stability or safety in the city of Charlottesville."

However, Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Tracci said he did not believe the jail should change the policy.

"Any change to this policy requires public enunciation of the board's legal authority to abrogate existing practice, clear explication justifying this departure, and an explanation of accompanying public safety implications," he wrote. "Simply put, the proper way to change federal law is to petition Congress to change federal law."

ACRJ Board Chair Diantha McKeel voted to keep the policy in January. After the work session, she said she planned to review meeting minutes and didn't know how she will vote on the issue if the board takes up the issue again this fall.

In a statement after the meeting, ICE representative Hott said the agency will "continue to work with its law enforcement partners to carry out our fundamental duty to serve and protect the public."

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