For years, Congress has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants through the Justice Action Grant (JAG)/Byrne grant program to aid state and local anti-drug efforts, with much of the money going to multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, the controversial multi-agency police squads who make prosecuting the drug war their livelihood. But funding for the program was dramatically slashed in the omnibus federal budget passed a few weeks ago, and ever since, a curious phenomenon has occurred: In newspapers across the land, stories with headlines like these have been popping up: Grant Cut Threatens Narcotics Task Force (Kentucky), Drug Task Force Discusses Grant Cut (Georgia), Cuts Could Affect Local Drug Task Force (Iowa).
Funded at $520 million last year, the two-decade old program that allows states to supplement their anti-drug spending with federal tax dollars was already down substantially from previous funding levels. For the past three years, as a cost-cutting move, the Bush administration has tried to zero it out completely, but that has proven extremely unpopular with Congress. This year, the House voted to fund the block grant portion of the program at $600 million and the Senate at $660 million, but in last-minute budget negotiations, the White House insisted the funding be cut.
"The Democrats wanted to restore Bush's previous cuts to the program," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "In fact, they wanted to increase it over last year, but it was Bush's hard-stance on domestic spending that forced them to cut the program at the end. The Democrats, and most Republicans, wanted to restore the funding."
Now, Brooks and his allies are regrouping to seek renewed funding in a supplemental appropriations bill this year. "The Byrne grants are really the only funding stream to help chiefs and sheriffs participate in multi-jurisdictional drug task forces," said Brooks. "This means task forces around the country will close, and we will no longer be able to focus multi-jurisdictional effort on drug trafficking organizations -- we'll be back to picking the low-hanging fruit."
"Trying to get more funding through a supplemental appropriations bill will be an uphill battle," DPA's Piper predicted. "It will be either the war funding or the economic stimulus bill, and both are going to be very expensive. Politically, there is only so much money they can put in those bills if they want to pass them. And if they try to attach it to the Iraq funding, we can argue that every dollar going to the cops is a dollar taken from the soldiers."
But failing to fund the task forces could lead to increased criminality, Brooks warned. "We can show the nexus between drugs and crime and gangs," he said. "We anticipate increases in violent crime because of this."
"We're very upset by the cutback," said Don Murray, legislative director for justice and public safety for the National Association of Counties (NACO), which is part of the coalition seeking redress. "The Byrne/JAG program is a major systemic approach to dealing with crime."
It may be a systemic approach, but it is a system that has been the site of scandalous abuses and one that has been roundly criticized by everyone from tax-watch groups to civil libertarians. It was federally funded Texas drug task forces that committed the Tulia and Hearne scandals, where large numbers of minority citizens were arrested, convicted, and imprisoned on nonexistent evidence, and that was only the tip of the iceberg in the Lone Star State. Drug task forces are also involved in some of those horrendous drug botched raids that have left a toll of dead civilians, suspects, and police officers. On a more banal level, drug task force members have made regular appearances in our Corrupt Cops Stories of the Week feature.
In the wake of the Tulia scandal and other task force scandals in her home state and beyond, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) introduced a 2005 bill to rein in the task forces. While that bill never went anywhere, the Bush budget ax may accomplish more than Jackson-Lee ever dreamed.
At the time, Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU legislative counsel, addressed the problems with the task forces: "These drug task forces around the country haven't had to answer to anyone," she said. "As a result of this lack of state and federal oversight, they've been at the center of the some of the country's most egregious law enforcement abuse scandals. The law enforcement agents involved in these scandals weren't just a few bad apples," McCurdy said.
The JAG/Byrne grant program that funds the task forces seeded the above litany of abuses "has proved to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources," said four conservative tax-payer organizations -- American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens against Government Waste, and National Taxpayers Union -- in a 2005 statement calling for the Bush administration to zero out funding.
While most attention around the grant program is centered on the funding of the drug task forces, NACO's Murray said, the money also pays for other drug policy costs. "The program covers law enforcement, courts, corrections, prevention, and drug treatment," he said. "When you look at these programs at the local level, JAG is crucial," he said.
When asked why state and local authorities don't fund their own law enforcement initiatives, Murray said they already do, but it isn't enough. "In 2002, we commissioned a survey of county criminal justice spending, and we found that the counties were spending $53 billion a year on it," he said. "But given all the issues we face -- reentry, the mentally ill behind bars, healthcare -- it isn't enough."
Law enforcement and its allies are mobilizing, Brooks said. "Nobody saw this coming," he said. "We formed a working group back in 2005, when these cuts were first proposed, mostly of national associations, and now we have some 30 groups representing almost a million members. We've got everybody from drug court judges to NACO to the National Association of Police Chiefs and the National Association of Attorneys General. Getting the funding back is the sole purpose of our coalition," he said.
The coalition will be working a two-track approach, he said. "We will try to encourage the leadership of Congress to restore this money in a supplemental funding vehicle, either the economic stimulus or the war funding supplemental, but that will only happen if the leadership opens the door," he said. "We're also doing grassroots work back in our communities. That's how the 120 articles got published."
While DPA's Piper said that restoring the grant funding would be an uphill battle, his organization is doing its best to counter the law enforcement offensive. "We will be working the Hill, trying to do some push-back in the media, and reaching out to taxpayer and conservative groups that have traditionally supported eliminating this program," Piper said. "But the real question is whether Bush will stand his ground and whether Republicans will back him."
President Bush has proven to be an unlikely ally in the fight to rein in federal funding of the drug war, but Congress appears vulnerable to pressure from the men with badges. And they're working hard: When Brooks spoke with the Chronicle this week, he was in the Hart Senate Office Building on his way to lobby staffers.