Ending the Drug War Means Rethinking Drug War Spending

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March 26, 2014 - By Michael Collins

Many in the drug policy reform movement have good reason to feel optimistic about the myriad changes that have occurred in the U.S. over the past few years.

Marijuana legalization is a trend that looks set to continue, harm reduction has become more widely accepted, and there is hope that Congress will pass sentencing reform to address mass incarceration engendered by the drug war. Yet a large part of what has driven the drug war is government spending, with each administration and Congress approving programs that incentivize the continuation of the drug war. If we are serious about ending the drug war, we must look closely at such spending and put forward alternatives.

Stepping up to the plate is the Brennan Center for Justice, with the recent release of a  report on reforming the Byrne JAG program, called “Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration.” Byrne JAG is currently the largest funding source that the federal government allocates to state law enforcement activities. This year alone, Congress awarded the program $376 million. By providing states with law enforcement subsidies, the program insulates states from the full cost of the drug war, thus undermining consideration of alternatives to the policy problems of the day, such as mass incarceration.

A 2013 report by the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) illustrated the lopsided nature of the Byrne JAG Program. An analysis of spending by project type found that 27% – the largest share – was spent on drug and gang enforcement. Additionally, 48% of law enforcement spending goes on drug and gang enforcement.

The Drug Policy Alliance has worked tirelessly to reform and/or cut funding to the program. DPA called for a ban on racial profiling that results from the program, and advocated for Congress to prevent Byrne JAG funding for the prosecution of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. In written Congressional testimony in 2012, DPA’s Director of National Affairs Bill Piper said, “The program insulates states from the full cost of current law, policy, and practice, effectively preempting consideration of alternatives to incarceration.”

One of the problems with Byrne JAG, the Brennan Center notes, concerns the program’s metrics. As the report puts it, “The program’s performance measures do not drive toward specific, measureable goals. Instead, they pose vague questions, fail to ask about programmatic success, and may steer recipients toward using punitive strategies, rather than ones that increase public safety.”

In other words, the program currently measures success by the number of arrests made, instead of asking state and local law enforcement officials if funding has led to a reduction in crime. We know from the history of the drug war that such a law enforcement model does little to increase safety on our streets, while exacerbating our mass incarceration crisis. Indeed, the report notes that the reports that Byrne JAG recipients are required to file “focus police on increasing the volume of arrests, warrants, and charges.” Notably, the report states that Byrne JAG report measurements “can contribute to mass incarceration.”

The failure of the drug war is well-documented, but the need to reform drug war spending merits more attention. Fortunately, the Brennan Center’s report is a step in that positive direction.

Michael Collins is a policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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