Federal grant promotes racial disparity in law enforcement and needs fixing, say advocacy groups

�The problem with this is that the more people they arrest, the better their chance of getting more money next year, so the narcotics task forces have a perverse incentive to arrest as many lower level offenders as possible because they are the easiest to catch�

�Bill Piper
Drug Policy Alliance Network

(FinalCall.com) – Twenty civil rights and criminal justice groups recently petitioned a congressional subcommittee on crime to alter a federal grant program they say has resulted in racial profiling, police corruption and civil rights abuses.

The groups made their appeal in a June 18 letter, the same day the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security voted to authorize H.R. 3546, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistant Grant Program (Byrne Formula Grant Program), which had already passed the Senate.


Rep. Henry “Hank” Johnson (D-Ga.) authored the bill, which provides for funding through 2012, at levels equal to money approved for it in 2006. Critics say the program provides a cover for law enforcement abuses primarily against people of color, and want the program reformed before renewal.

“I think that if this Democratic Congress renews the program without reforming it, they’re saying they don’t care about racial disparities and civil rights abuses. The track record of this program is clear and there are significant problems, so to renew without fixing these problems is just fiscally and morally unsound,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, told The Final Call.

The Drug Policy Alliance and other reform groups cited a 1999 discriminatory drug sting in Tulia, Texas, as one of the most notorious scandals linked to the grant program.

Forty Blacks and six others, who were either Latinos or Whites dating Blacks, were jailed after a White undercover police officer with history of lying and racism, conducted a bogus drug sting, advocates said. The undercover officer worked alone and he had no evidence or any eyewitness accounts to back his story, they added. About 15 percent of the town’s Black population was incarcerated for at least four years before two of the victims were able to prove that they were out of town when the drug trafficking supposedly took place.

In Hearne, Texas, a judge found that a narcotics task force routinely targeted Blacks in a scheme to drive them out of the majority White town.

One problem is that various regional narcotic task forces funded by the grant operate under different state guidelines and have no accountability to local officials. And, the federal government poorly regulates the task forces, Mr. Piper said.

“The problem with this is that the more people they arrest, the better their chance of getting more money next year, so the narcotics task forces have a perverse incentive to arrest as many lower level offenders as possible because they are the easiest to catch, and to cut constitutional corners. They have to report back to someone how many people they arrested so they have an incentive to rack up those numbers,” he said.

In 2006, Congress had authorized more than $1.095 billion for the program, but that was slashed to $520 million for 2007, and again by two-thirds to $170.4 million this year.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 created the program as a joint effort between federal, state and local governments to better solve criminal justice issues, especially drug trafficking and violent crime.

Law enforcement agencies use the grant to pay for personnel, equipment, training, technical assistance, information systems, prosecution, adjudication, detention, rehabilitation and victims’ assistance.

According to Rep. Johnson, the program has led to 220,000 arrests, the seizure of 54,000 weapons, the destruction of 5.5 million grams of methamphetamine and the elimination of almost 9,000 methamphetamine labs. “But as we discuss how the program has worked effectively across the country we must also discuss some of the problems that have led this administration and some advocacy groups to criticize the program,” Rep. Johnson admitted during a May 20 subcommittee hearing on the bill.

But, he argued, slashing funding would only jeopardize the gains the criminal justice system has made fighting crime.

“My organization has taken the position that the Byrne Grant funds ought to be used for prevention activities in communities to diffuse youth gangs by getting them involved in positive activities. These funds should be distributed to ordinary law enforcement where the responsibility is given to mayors and city government or the regional district attorney or FBI offices,” said Judge Arthur Burnett, Sr., executive director of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition.

Mr. Piper acknowledged that the program fosters some good things like drug treatment and juvenile justice aid, but there is still cause for worry over issues like the unregulated use of confidential informants.

“You have conspiracy laws that allow people to get long prison sentences based solely on the word of someone else, whether an informant, undercover officer, or someone in prison seeking a reduced sentence. The federal funding for the war on drugs in general and the Byrne Grant Program are perpetuating racial disparities, over incarceration and civil rights abuses,” Mr. Piper said.

Related links:

America’s New Slavery: Black Men in Prison (FCN, 03-20-2008)

Follow the Prison Money Trail ..to elected officials (In These Times, 09-04-2006)

Black incarceration rates tripled during Clinton Presidency (FCN, 03-06-2001)