Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Drug treatment funds linked to ending rogue task forces

As ACLU's litigation against the drug task force in Hearne moves forward, I testified in the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee yesterday on behalf of SB 1125 by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, who is unhappy that a drug task force cop pulled him over in the Valley and tried to bully him into a consent search. Note to unknown task force cop: That was a big mistake.

SB 1125 contains two key provisions: it eliminates drug task forces that refuse to accept Department of Public Safety oversight, and it designates 50% of asset forfeiture income from drug task forces to pay for county drug treatment and probation services.

Governor Perry gave DPS "command and control" of the task forces in 2002 after scandals in Tulia and Hearne became well known. While I don't think DPS has the situation under control yet, mostly because of structural flaws in the system beyond their control, I'll give them props for effort. DPS implemented new rules governing undercover operations and confidential informant funds that made several agencies balk. In some instances, task forces chose to operate without federal funding rather than comply with DPS' rules, and set out on their own.

That fact seemed to irk the committee quite a bit. Even those testifying against the bill had to admit that, given the history of scandal in Tulia and elsewhere, it didn't look good for drug task forces to flaunt the authority of DPS and the Governor. DPS Colonel Tommy Davis testified there were less than ten of these rogue task forces, and told the committee he thought the bill was a good idea. Sen. Hinojosa also said the Governor supported it, which should grease the skids.

As filed, SB 1125 would eliminate task forces that chose not to operate under Texas Department of Public Safety control. After innocent people were accused by drug task forces financed by the federal "Byrne grant" program in Tulia, Hearne, and elsewhere around the state, Governor Perry ordered DPS to take "command and control" of Texas' drug task force system. DPS insisted on new rules for handling evidence, employing confidential informants and other problematic aspects of task force management that caused the previous scandals. The only authority DPS had to command anyone, though, was based on the annual allotment of Byrne grant money distributed through the Governor's office. So, where task forces receive enough money from asset forfeiture income, they often chose to relinquish their grants in order to avoid DPS oversight. These rogue task forces are flaunting their lack accountability, I said. They need to be abolished.

My comments to the committee basically reflected what's above, abbreviated somewhat by questions from the dais. Basically I got through the first section before senators, more or less incredulously, began to talk among themselves about what chutzpah it took to decide not to accept DPS control, which seemed like a good sign. Anyway, one of the benefits of blogging is that I get to finish the argument here:

Besides getting rid of outright rogue task forces,
SB 1125 would dedicate one-half of asset forfeiture money taken in by all task forces to finance pressing needs for county-level drug treatment. That's a start, but even then Texas will face big, unfulfilled needs:
  • Texas currently has more than 400,000 adults on probation statewide - over 125,000 of them with a drug or DWI conviction.
  • Texas only provides about 6,000 treatment beds for probationers with waiting lists 3-6 months long.
  • About 60 Texas communities have limited outpatient programs, but many do not.
For a drug addict, treatment has been shown to be a far more effective way to protect public safety than prison. New statewide efforts to shift emphasis from incarcerating low-level offenders to probation and drug courts will benefit greatly if counties have more resources for those services. The solution is to dedicate resources to county probation programs, which is why we need SB 1125. (DA's asset forfeiture accounts have been identified as another possible source of drug treatment funds.)

The bill was left pending while Sen. Hinojosa prepares a substitute, but it seemed like this one has legs.

No comments: