Congress has rubber stamped (yet again) the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, a federal law enforcement grant program that is feeding the war on drugs and fueling racial disparities, police corruption, and civil rights abuses. The U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously today to renew the controversial but politically popular program. The Senate has already voted to renew the program.
In recent years the Byrne Grant program has come under fire across the political spectrum. Sentencing reform advocates have accused it of fueling the rapid growth in the number of nonviolent Americans behind bars and note that as long as states don't have to pay the full cost of their criminal justice system they will never have to consider sentencing reforms. Fiscal conservatives question whether the federal government can afford such an expensive program in a time of rising deficits, especially with little evidence that the program has had any impact on crime.
It has also become increasingly clear that the Byrne grant program is perpetuating racial disparities, police corruption and civil rights abuses across the country. This is especially the case when it comes to the program's funding of hundreds of regional anti-drug task forces. These task forces, which lack very little state or federal oversight and are prone to corruption, are at the center of some of our country's most horrific law enforcement scandals. Their ability to perpetuate themselves through asset forfeiture and federal funding makes them unaccountable to local taxpayers and governing bodies. As a result, they are mired in scandal in state after state.
The most notorious Bryne-funded scandal occurred in Tulia, Texas where dozens of African American residents (representing 16 percent of the town's black population) were arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to decades in prison, even though the only evidence against them was the uncorroborated testimony of one white undercover officer with a history of lying and racism. The undercover officer worked alone, and had no audiotapes, video surveillance, or eyewitnesses to collaborate his allegations. Suspicions eventually arose after two of the defendants accused were able to produce firm evidence showing they were out of state or at work at the time of the alleged drug buys. Texas Governor Rick Perry eventually pardoned the Tulia defendants (after four years of imprisonment), but these kinds of scandals continue to plague the Byrne grant program.
Recent scandals in other states include the misuse of millions of dollars in federal grant money in Kentucky and Massachusetts, false convictions based on police perjury in Missouri, and making deals with drug offenders to drop or lower their charges in exchange for money or vehicles in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Twenty civil rights and criminal justice reform groups released a letter urging the House Judiciary Committee not to renew the program without first reforming it. The groups included the ACLU, the Brennan Center, National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, National African-American Drug Policy Coalition, National Black Police Association, the National Council of La Raza and the Drug Policy Alliance.
There are clear steps Congress can take to reform this program, from providing better oversight to requiring law enforcement agencies receiving federal money to document their traffic stops, arrests and searches by race and ethnicity. Unfortunately, members of the Judiciary Committee voted to renew the program without fixing it; that makes them responsible for the racial disparities and civil rights abuses it will breed.
Bill Piper is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)
How will Trump’s administration impact you? Learn more