updated 12/7/2008 7:06:11 PM ET 2008-12-08T00:06:11

The idea was simple: States could flush their prisons early of nonviolent immigrant convicts while helping the federal government close the books on potentially thousands of pending deportations.

But implementing what's known as the Rapid REPAT program has been anything but quick.

Nearly four months have passed since Rhode Island became the first state to sign up for the program, which allows certain nonviolent immigrants to get out of prison early on the condition they never return to the United States.

But the state has yet to finish creating a way to find such inmates in the prison system. And prison officials say the first deportations are months away.

The program also drew criticism from civil liberties groups who feared immigrants might not understand the rights they were giving up.

"We believe that steps need to be taken to ensure that this truly is a voluntary program," said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But officials said it's a logical cost-cutting approach to reducing the state's illegal immigrant population. Still, fewer than 5 percent of the state's inmate population of less than 4,000 were expected to qualify.

Modeled after similar programs
"It's someone who's going to get deported anyway, so why don't we deport them now rather than spending all this money on incarceration and then deporting them?" said Patricia Coyne-Fague, a lawyer for the state corrections department.

Rapid REPAT was modeled after similar programs in New York and Arizona, and federal officials said those initiatives have saved millions of dollars through early inmate release. In the past two years, about 2,600 immigrants in total were removed from both states, according to U.S. immigration officials.

Prison officials said it was not clear how many people would sign up or how much the cash-strapped state would save, since the program is voluntary.

Rhode Island's participation in Rapid REPAT emerged from Gov. Don Carcieri's effort to crack down on illegal immigration.

It followed an executive order in March that required state police and parole officers to identify illegal immigrants for deportation. It also mandated that the state's government agencies and state contractors use a federal database to validate employees' immigration status.

To participate in Rapid REPAT, an inmate must have been sentenced for certain nonviolent criminal offenses such as car theft, drunken driving, drug possession or attempted burglary. The inmates must also be eligible for parole and be facing a final order of deportation from an immigration judge.

Participants can't appeal convictions
An inmate who meets the criteria will be flagged by a new computer program.

"Everything that we're developing, we're building from the ground up," said corrections Director A.T. Wall. "Rhode Island doesn't have this framework yet."

A possible glitch in Rapid REPAT could be if a home country refuses to accept someone or prisoners change their mind. But Rhode Island officials said the carefully drafted agreement they signed with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August outlines exactly who has to pay for what when a deal breaks down.

For their part, immigrants get out of prison early and shouldn't have to wait through ICE detention in addition to their prison sentence. Some lawful permanent residents and other categories of immigrant also can qualify.

But those who agree to participate would forfeit their right to appeal their criminal convictions. And they must agree never to return — a tall order for people who might have family in the United States.

If they come back illegally, they could have to serve out the rest of their original sentence and get an additional 20 years in prison for the immigration violation.

"We think it's really critical that these individuals know what they're giving up to participate in the program," said Brown, of the ACLU.

Immigrants in state prisons have little means to hire immigration attorneys or access family members or other advisers, advocates and lawyers say.

"If you get deported for a criminal offense, the odds that you're ever coming back to the United States as a tourist, let alone as a permanent resident, are slim to none," said Sophie Feal, supervising immigration attorney at the Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project in New York. "So that's what people need to understand before they think this is a ticket to freedom."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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