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Court system changes mean faster pleas for immigration detainees
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Judge B.E. Roberts presides Friday over a calender call for misdemeanor criminal defendants. Since the inception of 287(g), more criminal defendants are pleading guilty in jail and foregoing court hearings like this one. - photo by Tom Reed

On a Friday morning in the Hall County jail, two dozen jumpsuit-clad inmates lined up in handcuffs and leg irons to plead guilty to the misdemeanor crimes that landed them there.

After being led by deputies into a plain cinder block room converted into a courtroom with a pair of flags and a judge's desk at one end, the inmates quietly sat in rows of metal and plastic chairs. They waited to enter their pleas before Hall County Senior State Court Judge Charles Wynne, many with the aid of a Spanish-language interpreter.

About half the inmates at Friday's hearing were Hispanic immigrants in the country illegally. They will be turned over to immigration officials after serving the time the judge gives them, usually a few days in jail for minor traffic offenses like driving without a license. Many already served the jail time Wynne gave them while waiting to enter their pleas.

Since the implementation of the local-federal immigration enforcement program known as 287(g), the number of inmates electing to plead guilty without a lawyer in these hearings has nearly doubled. Those who are in the country illegally can't get out of jail on a bond because jail deputies have placed immigration detainers on them, with deportation the most common final outcome.

Addressing the inmates as a group and individually, Wynne makes sure they know they have the right to plead not guilty, and can ask for him to appoint a lawyer if they can't afford one. He adds that their decision to plead guilty should not be based on whether it results in them being released from the sheriff's custody.

The inmates chose to enter their pleas without legal counsel. Those with immigration holds soon will be boarding an Immigration and Customs Enforcement bus bound for a federal detention center in Atlanta. Within a week's time, depending on if they want to contest the immigration charge, they could be back in Mexico.

Since 287(g) was implemented in Hall County in early April, 564 people arrested in Hall County have been turned over to federal immigration officials. Another 91 people are awaiting deportation.

The primary impact of 287(g) on Hall County's court system is that minor cases like those heard by the judge on Friday are handled more quickly, often without an attorney or a trip to the Hall County courthouse. And the number of illegal immigrants appearing in court on arraignment days, or not showing up for court, has seen a corresponding drop.

Proponents say the hearings at the jail are cost-efficient and dispense justice in a timely fashion.
Critics say the immigration enforcement program leaves some criminal defendants with no choice but to plead guilty or spend an inordinate amount of time behind bars for offenses as minor as driving without a license.

"Once that 287(g) hold is on, you're not going anywhere," said local attorney Arturo Corso, a frequent critic of the program. "No person has the patience to sit in jail and wait for their day in trial, for three, four months, when they could be deported in three weeks. Anybody who likes to breathe free air will say, ‘forget whether I'm innocent, I want to get out and be with my wife and family.'"

"There's very little you can do in that situation," Gainesville lawyer Dan Summer said. "It's pretty automatic."

Summer said he hasn't been able to help anyone who called his office after having a family member detained under the 287(g) program.

"At that point they really need to be calling an immigration lawyer, not a criminal lawyer," Summer said.

He said quick guilty pleas like those taken at Friday's hearing "have probably happened a lot lately, to go ahead and close the case out and get it over with. It kind of forces the issue since you're not going to be able to get out (on a bond). It's an extraordinarily coercive situation."

Inmates are asked individually by the judge if they have been coerced to plead guilty through promises or threats. All say "no."

The ‘briar patch'
Hall County Solicitor-General Larry Baldwin said his office has seen a "significant increase" in unrepresented guilty pleas, commonly known as "jail pleas" since the implementation of 287(g).

Two weeks ago, Wynne took 49 jail pleas. Wynne and fellow state court judge B.E. Roberts generally take between 10 and 30 pleas per hearing, held every Tuesday and Friday at the jail.

Until about a month ago, unrepresented pleas took place at the Hall County courthouse. But with so many defendants now unable to make bond because of immigration holds, the court began coming to the inmates. The arrangement, sheriff's officials say, saves on fuel costs and manpower to transport busloads of inmates four miles to the courthouse, and helps control jail population numbers.

Baldwin said the number of bench warrants issued for those who fail to show up for court to answer their charges after bonding out may be dropping as well.
Cases are handled differently for illegal immigrants charged with serious felony crimes like aggravated assault, drug trafficking, child molestation or murder.

Nearly all felony defendants have lawyers and are held in jail for longer periods of time, until their cases can be heard and adjudicated in the courthouse and a prison sentence, if applicable, is given by a superior court judge. Federal immigration officials won't take custody of those inmates convicted of serious felony crimes until they have served their time in a state prison.

"We want people who are charged with crimes and are in the country illegally to be deported eventually, but only after being held fully accountable for the more serious crimes," Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said.

Deporting criminals, Darragh said, "is in many cases like throwing them into the briar patch."

"Many people turn back around and come back into the country with different identities," he said. "They're sometimes difficult to track."

At least two illegal immigrants charged with murder in Hall County in recent years were deported from the United States once before.

Darragh is in favor of 287(g), which was implemented by Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic through an agreement with federal officials.

"I think 287(g) is an excellent program when managed effectively to deport certain people quickly, but also to ensure that those who are charged with serious crimes remain here until they're held accountable," Darragh said.

Homeward bound
In Judge Wynne's converted courtroom at the jail, the Hispanic defendants entered their pleas stoically, answering the judge's questions about their understanding of their rights before softly saying "culpable" (pronounced "cool-PA-blay"), the Spanish word for "guilty," when asked how they pleaded.

Their charges included headlight violations, no child restraint, no insurance and running a red light.

Most will soon be boarding a immigration bus that comes to the jail three times a week and transports inmates bound for Atlanta, then a detention center in Stewart County and eventually Mexico.

Attorney Summer said the biggest impact of 287(g) isn't in the courthouse, "it's in the workplace, in the schools and in the neighborhoods, where it displaces families and causes real anxiety and distress."

"This isn't the solution to the immigration problem," Summer said. "It's a Band-Aid that's creating other problems."