The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena heard arguments Tuesday by lawyers for a private prison company and the federal government over a lawsuit that challenges California’s Assembly Bill 32 that bans private prisons and privately-run immigration detention centers.
California legislators passed AB 32 in 2019 hoping other states would follow suit and ban private detention centers, including facilities contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants. AB 32 went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, intending to close seven privately-run prisons by 2028 and leave California with only one county jail that holds immigrants for deportation.
Washington state and New Jersey, among other states, have also moved to ban privately-run immigrant detention centers.
Before the law took effect, GEO Group, a private prison corporation based in Florida, filed suit alleging that the California bill would “undermine and eliminate the congressionally funded and approved enforcement of federal criminal and immigration law.”
The Trump administration later filed its own lawsuit against the California legislation, based on similar claims.
A U.S. district judge in San Diego upheld the private prison ban in October 2020, saying the state has the right to regulate the conditions of confinement of any facility within its territory. But then a 9th Circuit panel of judges voted two against one that California must exempt federal immigration detention centers from the ban.
The Biden administration’s Justice Department has decided to take over this challenge to California’s law.
A Los Angeles Times report said attorneys for the GEO Group and the federal government argued before the judges that Congress has the authority to utilize contracted private companies when necessary.
No ruling has yet been made at the Pasadena-based appeals court as of Tuesday, but the outcome of the case could affect the future of the private prison industry in several other states.
Records kept by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which provides comprehensive, independent, and nonpartisan information on federal enforcement, staffing and funding, show that about 25,000 people are in detention throughout the U.S.
Private prisons may be responsible for less than 10 percent of the total U.S. prison population, but nearly 80 percent of people detained for immigration cases are in these for-profit prisons, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.