Texas Byrne grant money now goes to fund border security projects of questionable effectiveness and a variety of smaller, mostly beneficial local programs. But in most states, the bulk of Byrne grant funding goes to pay for drug task forces, which is why Senators Kit Bond (R-Missouri) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) want to keep the pork barrel funds flowing. ("Bush budget slashes drug task force grants," The Wichita Eagle, Feb. 17)
Bully for the Texas Congresswoman for insisting that folks in Washington recognize the important lessons from Tulia, an episode which took place nearly a decade ago in a town of fewer than 5,000 that continues to influence how America thinks about the justice system.
Currently, [Bond] said, the Byrne grant money is the major source of funding for 25 to 29 drug task forces, in which officers from various counties and cities join forces with state agencies such as the Highway Patrol to go after drug dealers. The politics surrounding the Byrne grants are producing odd bedfellows in Washington. While Bond finds himself at loggerheads with a president of his own party, some Democrats have joined the Bush administration in raising questions about the value of the grants.
Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has been among the most persistent critics. She said the drug task forces financed by Byrne grants are subject to little federal oversight and that some of them have used racial profiling to pursue drug dealers.
In one case, in Tulia, Texas, in 1999, dozens of people were sentenced to decades in prison based on the uncorroborated testimony of one drug task force officer. Most of them were pardoned four years later, and the officer was convicted of perjury.
In 2005, the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget said the Byrne program lacked goals, solid management and planning. Since 2002, the program has been cut from $900 million to $170 million. Bush is now proposing to spend $200 million on the program in 2009, while Harkin and Bond are proposing to return to $660 million.
For that matter, this is an issue where I've long supported President Bush, even producing a series of full-page newspaper ads in support of his budget cuts that ran when I worked for ACLU. (Here's one that ran in the Jacksonville Progress; click on the image to enlarge.)
The sky didn't fall in Texas when our drug task forces lost their funding, and these other states will all survive, too. Democrats and Republicans alike should support President Bush's efforts to de-fund Tulia-style drug task forces nationwide.