OAKLAND (CBS/AP) – A new policy in Alameda County is instructing prosecutors to consider filing lesser criminal charges for some legal immigrants in an effort to avoid mandatory deportation.

The Oakland Tribune reports that District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has instructed prosecutors to consider lesser charges in misdemeanor cases where federal law dictates mandatory expulsion from the U.S.

The policy would allow legal immigrants convicted of petty thefts or low-level drug cases to avoid deportation in exchange for longer jail sentences or other terms.

Under federal law, immigrants who have not yet obtained U.S. citizenship are forcibly deported automatically after certain convictions.

A similar Santa Clara County policy has helped avoid some expensive trials against immigrants, who can be more likely to settle cases if a guilty plea doesn’t force deportation.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)