Alternatives to Detention in the USA

Screening and Assessment

In March 2013, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deployed a new Risk Classification Assessment instrument nationally. This is the first automated system of individualised assessment used to assist placement determinations. The Risk Classification As-sessment tool was developed in response to criticism over the increasing numbers of people being unnecessarily detained or detained for prolonged periods. Such detention was taking place without uniform, individualised assessment or determination that their detention was proportionate or justified, including whether they were a danger to society, or a flight risk.[1]

The Risk Classification Assessment tool is used during the detainee intake process to determine (a) whether a person should be released or detained, (b) if released, what levels of supervision should be placed on the individual, and (c) if detained, the individual’s custody classification level.

The tool guides ICE officers through a multi-staged process of decision-making, starting with a legal assessment of whether the individual is subject to mandatory detention, or whether detention would otherwise be required. In respect to the latter, the Risk Classification Assess-ment tool uses objective classification scales and mathematically weighted factors/algorithms to score the risk that an individual poses to the community. Persons who do not pose a risk to the community and who are eligible to be released are then assessed using additional factors that score the risk of absconding. The results determine the type of alternative best suited to the individual.

The Risk Classification Assessment tool requires ICE officers to screen for the existence of family ties, immigration history including compliance with previous immigration decisions, as well as medical, mental health and other vulnerability triggers at the outset. It includes prompting questions for a number of vulnerability triggers includ-ing disability, advanced age, pregnancy, nursing mothers, sole caretaking responsi-bilities, mental health issues, and victimisation, including aliens who may be eligible for relief under the Violence against Women Act, survivors of crime, or survivors of human trafficking.[2]

It is designed to take eight minutes to complete. It remains to be seen how effective the tool is in a context where conditions are applied rigor-ously and there is a historical predisposition to detain.[3]

Legal Aid

The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, Arizona.

Since 1989, this nongovernmental agency has been permitted entry to immigration detention facilities (Florence INS Service Processing Center) to give daily legal rights presentations to between 20-40 detainees at a time prior to their first hearing before an Immigration Judge. The presentations assist detainees in evaluating whether to go forward with their case, increasing the efficiency of the immigration court process and reducing the overall costs of detention.

The group orientations are followed by individual interviews with those who request them. The Project also provides instructions for writing supporting/bond letters for parole hearings and directly represents a portion of those applicants at their bond hearings.  In 1998, based on the success of the Florence Project, the US government (administered via EOIR) funded legal orientation projects in three different sites, with three different agencies, for three months each. The Department of Justice’s findings from these pilot projects were that providing such rights information to immigration detainees made the immigration proceedings more efficient and reduced overall bed days in detention by 4.2 days per detainee. Such legal orientations have now been funded nationwide. At an estimated cost of detention of $65.61 per day, such orientations should lead to a $12.8 million saving. If the legal orientations cost $2.8 million, the government will still save $10 million.

Reporting Requirements

Reporting obligations imposed on asylum-seekers based on the United States’ individualized Risk Classification Assessment tool may be satisfied via telephonic reporting. Individuals can “check-in” over the phone via biometric voice recognition software. The frequency of the call-in is based on an assessment of the flight risk and may be increased or decreased depending on the stage of an individual’s case.  Run by a private contractor to the US Government, if the individual does not call-in at the appropriate intervals, reporting may be escalated or they may subject to re-detention.


In the United States, the Vera Institute and now a company named Behavioral Interventions Inc. are nongovernmental entities contracted to conduct programmes of ‘supervision’ with as much of an enforcement as welfare ethos (see above summary of the Vera Institute’s results).

Elsewhere, nongovernmental agencies have been given ‘custody’ of a released detainee as a pragmatic method of releasing vulnerable persons (e.g., the sick, the elderly, separated children, etc.) who have become, in fact, too great a liability or problem for the State to detain and who pose little risk of absconding.

Shelter: Basic Needs during Judicial Hearings

NGOs in USA providing for basic needs of those in judicial proceedings: “VIVE, Freedom House and the Boston-based Refugee Immigration Ministry also provide shelter, food, English classes and health services to the immigrants in judicial proceedings. ” [4]

Find out more: 

[1] Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, (Baltimore, MD: LIRS, 2011) 19.

[2] LIRS, “Unlocking Liberty”, 19.

[3] Mark Noferi and Robert Koulish, “The Immigration Detention Risk Assessment,” Georgetown Immigration Law Journal 29 Advanced Access (2015): 45-93.

[4] LIRS, “Unlocking Liberty”, 3.

There are alternatives cover

Over the past five years, the IDC has undertaken a program of research to identify and describe a number of positive alternatives to immigration detention (‘alternatives’) that respect fundamental rights, are less expensive and are equally or more effective than traditional border controls.

This research, entitled There are alternatives, provides readers with the guidance needed to successfully avoid unnecessary detention and to ensure community options are as effective as possible.

This text was published in September 2015.