Tony Newman at (646)335-5384 or Bill Piper at (202) 669-6430
Last week the U.S. House Crime Subcommittee voted to renew the controversial but politically popular Byrne Justice Assistance grant program without debate or amendment. The House Judiciary Committee is set to take up the issue tomorrow, Wednesday June 18th. The Senate has already passed legislation renewing the program, which has been linked to racial disparities, police corruption and civil rights abuses. Twenty civil rights and criminal justice reform groups released a letter today urging the House Judiciary Committee not to renew the program without first reforming it. The groups include 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,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “If Judiciary Committee Members renew this program without fixing it, they will be responsible for the racial disparities and civil rights abuses it breeds.”
In a deeply troubling example of the consequences of the Byrne grant program, 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.
The most notorious Bryne-funded scandal occurred in 1999 in Tulia, Texas where dozens of African-American residents (representing 15% of the 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. The program has been linked to numerous scandals and civil rights abuses across the country.
“Every dollar Congress spends on the Byrne grant program is a dollar used to perpetuate racial disparities, police corruption and civil rights abuses,” said Piper. “Unless this program is reformed this year, members of Congress should consider cutting funding to it.”
What: Markup of H.R. 3546, a bill to reauthorize the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, and other bills.
When: Wednesday 06/18/2008 – 10:15 a.m.
Where: 2141 Rayburn House Office Building
Key Points of Interest:
Oscar-nominated actors Alfre Woodard and Michael O’Keefe star in the recently completed feature film American Violet. Based loosely on the Hearne scandal, the film follows the harrowing journey of a young mother fighting the devastating consequences of America’s drug task force programs. The film is scheduled to begin festival screenings worldwide early this fall.
Lionsgate films is currently producing a feature film based on the Tulia, Texas scandal starring Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry .
Twenty civil rights and criminal justice reform groups have released a letter today urging the House Judiciary Committee to not 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.
Four leading conservative groups have urged Congress 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 17 scandals involving Byrne-funded narcotics 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. 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 General Accounting Office found that the federal government fails to adequately monitor the grant program or hold grantees accountable.