Congress Includes Billions in Stimulus Package for Controversial Byrne Grant Program Linked to Racial Disparities, Police Corruption and Civil Rights Abuses

Press Release February 5, 2009
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 or Bill Piper at 202-669-6430

Last week the U.S. House approved a stimulus package including $3 billion for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants program, a controversial law enforcement grant program linked to racial disparities, police corruption and civil rights abuses. The Senate is currently considering the package. Critics say increased funding for the Byrne Grant program is going to backfire by increasing costs on one of the least productive sectors of the U.S. economy: the prison industrial complex.

“The last thing we need in a stimulus plan is an incentive for more arrests, more jail time and more prisons,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug policy Alliance. “If Congress wants to give away billions to local law enforcement, it needs to make clear that the objective is public safety, not catching more young people for possessing a joint.”

Law enforcement agencies, especially narcotics taskforces, are often evaluated and funded based on how many people they arrest. Since low-level drug offenders are plentiful and easy to catch, it’s easy for police to pad their numbers by arresting them, even as violent criminals roam free. The more nonviolent drug offenders the police arrest, the more federal money they receive. The number of Americans behind bars grows, and taxpayers are left footing the bill.

It’s no wonder, criminal justice reformers say, that the United States ranks first in the world in per capita incarceration rates, with 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. locks up more of its citizens on a per capita basis than China, Cuba, Mexico, Russia or any other country in the world. Police made more than 1.8 million drug arrests in 2007 (the latest year data is available), about 775,000 were for nothing more than simple possession of marijuana for personal use.

The Byrne Grant program is also at the center of some our country’s most shocking civil rights abuses.

The most notorious Bryne-funded scandal occurred in 1999 in Tulia, Texas where dozens of African-American residents (representing nearly half 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 corroborate his allegations.

Suspicions 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.

In another Byrne-related scandal, a magistrate judge found that a regional narcotics task force in Hearne, Texas routinely targeted African Americans as part of an effort to drive blacks out of the majority white town. For the past 15 years, the Byrne-funded task force annually raided the homes of African Americans and arrested and prosecuted innocent citizens. The county governments involved in the Hearne task force scandal eventually settled a civil suit, agreeing to pay financial damages to some of the victims of discrimination.

In a recent letter to House and Senate leaders, fifteen national civil rights and criminal justice organizations urged members of Congress to shift the Byrne Grant money in the stimulus bill to treatment, rehabilitation and other effective programs instead. The groups include included the ACLU, the National African-American Drug Policy Coalition, the National Black Police Association, National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Justice Policy Institute, and the United Methodist Church.

“The war on drugs is a new form of Jim Crow, systematically targeting communities of color and filling our prisons with nonviolent offenders at great taxpayer expense,” Nadelmann said. “It is doubtful states could afford their punitive criminal justice polices without federal subsidies. Members of Congress who support the Byrne Grant program are perpetuating injustice and burdening taxpayers”

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