Federal Justice Monies Lack Oversight on Abuse and Racial DisparitiesPosted by Audrey Grace, BI intern on March 16th, 2009
“Thank goodness for ‘The Wire.’" That’s what a friend of mine once said at a conference on justice and law enforcement, in reference to the HBO series. The television program’s central theme was there are no “good guys” or “bad guys” in the nation’s “War on Drugs.” And the victims are clearly the children.
I was moved to tears during the finale as I watched my favorite characters succumb to the pressures of their surroundings. Although fiction, the series was an eye-opening glimpse into how bureaucracy, violence and corruption within the justice system can disproportionately affect youth of color. Such thoughts were foremost on my mind when I first heard that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder recently authorized $2 billion in federal funding for state and local law enforcement through Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, as part of the Recovery Act.
For the past two decades, the JAG Program has funded state and local law enforcement without strict requirements or oversight to limit abuse and racial disparities. The stated goal of the current Recovery Act and the JAG program is not only to increase jobs, but also to increase public safety. Indeed, the Recovery Act has in place accountability provisions and reporting requirements on how the money is allocated, how it is spent and who is spending it. But accountability is not enough to reform the prevalence of police brutality, racial profiling and abuse of power that still exists.
A decade ago, an undercover officer’s uncorroborated testimony put 46 alleged cocaine dealers in prison in Tulia, Texas. Almost all of those arrested were black and 35 were later pardoned by Gov. Rick Perry. Law enforcement in Los Angeles made their own rules in the war on drugs in poor immigrant neighborhoods, conspiring to frame and murder innocent people-– a method soon dubbed the “Rampart Way” and shown in the movie “Training Day.” Officers in Florida, Illinois and North Carolina have illegally used state and local resources for their own drug trafficking activities. These instances, among others, show that without regulations and oversight, federal funding of state and local law enforcement means potentially funding corruption.
Latino men being searched after being pulled over by officers from the Los
Angeles Police Department gang unit on August 4, 2006 in the Rampart
neighborhood in Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Since the Vietnam War, America has been consumed with the “War on Drugs.” This war meant to take on drug lords has resulted in attacks mostly on low-level, non-violent drug dealers who tend to be young males of color. The Recovery Act requires that recipients of funds comply with nondiscrimination provisions in both employment and the delivery of services, under the applicable programs including the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Unfortunately, we already know that youth of color are more likely to be arrested, especially for drug offenses, even if they use drugs at the same or lower rates than White youth. Youth of color are also more likely to be detained for drug offenses and held longer than their white peers.
A state is allocated funds from the JAG program based on its share of the country’s population and violent crimes. Thus, the more crimes a state reports, the more funding it gets. So states actually have an incentive to inflate their statistics by making more arrests and detaining more low-level nonviolent offenders. We must ask ourselves whether this money will actually increase safety, or will it just increase the number of youth of color arrested? Perhaps a better way to determine a state or local government’s share would be to base it on their prevention efforts – not instances of violent crimes.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, believes that “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 tax payer expense.” Without federal funding through the JAG grant, Nadelmann says, “it is doubtful that states could afford their punitive criminal justice system.”
If we want to truly reduce the number of youth of color in detention centers and prisons, we need to ensure that the government allocates funds where they are needed most – in prevention and education programs, alternatives to detention, and data collection. Not in the further arrest and criminalization of our youth.