On Tuesday, April 5th the Public Safety, Sentencing and Incarceration Reform Congressional Caucus is sponsoring a Congressional briefing on the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program. The Byrne grant program is increasingly under fire across the political spectrum for wasting taxpayer money and perpetuating racial disparities, police corruption, and civil rights abuses. In the highest profile Byrne-related scandal dozens of African-Americans from Tulia were falsely imprisoned for years because of the uncorroborated testimony of one white Texas police officer. This week, the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence has voted to abolish all of Texas's Byrne-funded regional narcotics task forces.
Now, President Bush is proposing the complete elimination of the Byrne grant program and some groups - both conservative and liberal - support his plan. Other groups, however, say elimination goes too far because the program has had some benefits. The panel discussion next week, entitled "The Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program: Reform or Eliminate?," will include representatives from a wide array of groups who, for various reasons, seek reform, including the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance Network, Heritage Foundation, Open Society Policy Center, and the National Taxpayers Union.
Short of eliminating the program outright, reforms being suggested include: prohibiting Byrne money from going to regional anti-drug task forces, which are the source of most of the program's problems; requiring law enforcement agencies receiving federal funding to enforce a ban on racial profiling and document their traffic stops, arrests, and searches by race, ethnicity, and gender; and mandating that federal funding can only be used for anti-drug activity in states that have laws prohibiting people from being convicted of drug offenses based solely on the word of another individual without any collaborating evidence.
WHAT: Luncheon Panel Discussion on
the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program
WHEN: Tuesday, April 5th, 12:45 to 2:00
WHERE: 2226 Rayburn House Office Building
WHO: Speakers from ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance
Network, Heritage Foundation, Nation Taxpayers
Union, and the Open Society Policy Center Background
The Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year to local and state crime prevention initiatives. In recent years the program has come under scrutiny for its role in perpetuating racial disparities, police corruption, and civil rights abuses. This is especially true when it comes to the program's funding of hundreds of regional anti-drug task forces across the country. These task forces, which lack oversight and are prone to corruption, are at the center of some of our country's most horrific law enforcement scandals. The program has also been criticized for wasting taxpayer money and failing to reduce crime.
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.
Key Points of Interest:
- Four leading conservative groups have issued a sign-on letter urging Congress to support President Bush' proposal to completely eliminate the Byrne grant program, because the program "has proved to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources." (American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens against Government Waste, and National Taxpayers Union).
- A 2002 report by the ACLU of Texas identified seventeen scandals involving Byrne-funded anti-drug task forces in Texas, including cases of falsifying government records, witness tampering, fabricating evidence, false imprisonment, stealing drugs from evidence lockers, selling drugs to children, large-scale racial profiling, sexual harassment, and other abuses of official capacity. A more recent report by the ACLU of Texas found that the federal Byrne grant program is fueling racial profiling and unwarranted traffic stops, and that Byrne-funded task forces are "designed to fail because of structural flaws, misguided priorities, and fundamentally unaccountable management and hiring arrangements."
- Byrne-related scandals have grown so prolific that the Texas legislature recently passed several reforms in response to them, including outlawing racial profiling and changing Texas law to prohibit people from being convicted of drug offenses based solely on the word of an undercover informant. The Criminal Jurisprudence Committee of the Texas House of Representatives issued a report last year recommending all of the state's federally funded anti-drug task forces be abolished because they are inherently prone to corruption. The Committee reported, "Continuing to sanction task force operations as stand-alone law enforcement entities - with widespread authority to operate at will across multiple jurisdictional lines - should not continue. The current approach violates practically every sound principle of police oversight and accountability applicable to narcotics interdiction."
- Texas is not the only state suffering from Byrne-funded law enforcement scandals. 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.
- A 2001 study by the Government Accountability Office found that the federal government fails to adequately monitor the grant program and hold grantees accountable.
- After a Congressional briefing on the Tulia scandal last May, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Rep. John Conyers (D-TX) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) (in conjunction with the Washington Office of the Open Society Institute), Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) pledged to hold hearings on the scandal and the role the Byrne grant program played in it. Those hearings have yet to be held.
- In his Fiscal Year 2006 budget request, President Bush proposes to completely eliminate the Byrne Justice Assistance grant program.