FEDERAL immigration detention centers are supposed to be a last option for sending immigrants caught living in the U.S. illegally while they await hearings about their fate.

Yet, under the Obama administration, the number of federal holding cells, such as those at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, has grown unnecessarily. And as they do, private prison contractors are reaping the rewards. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spends nearly $2 billion each year maintaining at least 34,000 detention beds nightly.

Thatwastes taxpayer dollars and makes Americans no safer. Detainees often are asylum seekers, refugees, human-trafficking victims or individuals who overstayed their visas.

Only 11 percent have been convicted of violent crimes in the past, yet all languish in prisonlike settings for days, months or even years. News reports have brought to light stories of possible mistreatment by guards, terrible food and labor exploitation. Detainees have no legalright to attorneys, and their families often cannot afford to pay for them.

The Northwest Detention Center is operated by private prison stalwart GEO Group. The center has come under fire for poor conditions that recently led about 750 out of 1,300 detainees to go on hunger strikes over the course of two months.

GEO’S contract expires in October. Rather than continuing business as usual, ICE should consider other options. Studies and pilot projects show that alternatives to incarceration increase compliance and reduce costs:

• Releasing some people on bond would cost taxpayers little.

• Intensive supervision programs that include electronic-monitoring bracelets and unannounced home visits would cost about $22 per person per day, according to ICE’s own estimates.

• In other parts of the country, community-based housing and support pilot programs have cost as little as 3 percent of ICE detention. These programs, such as those run by Vera Institute of Justice and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, still yield high rates of compliance with court appearance requirements.

• Providing detainees with legal representation allows them to more quickly navigate the legal process, reducing lengths of incarceration.

ICE spends less than 3 percent of its detention budget on cheaper alternatives.

Time to change the status quo.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).