Monday, October 10, 2005

Midland task force disbands, others may go in six months

President Bush wants to end the federal program that pays for local drug task forces, but officials in his home Texas county of Midland beat him to the punch last week by pre-emptively disbanding their's.

The Trans Pecos Narcotics Task Force, another Byrne-grant funded drug task force like the ones in Tulia and Hearne, is the "latest in a long list of these task forces in Texas and the nation to close up shop amid mounting criticisms of malfeasance and a dying funding stream," Ryan Myers reported Sunday in the
Midland Reporter Telegram ("Local drug task force disbands amid funding cuts," Oct. 9). The move comes in response to the state's decision not to renew task forces' annual grant funding; instead the Governor re-upped their budgets for just six months, announcing significant changes in future funding priorities.

Apparently the state hopes to use its limited resources to target criminals producing and smuggling drugs instead of just low-level addicts, which would certainly be a welcome change. Said the Trans Pecos task force commander, "there's a shift happening now toward a statewide focus on larger level drug players, and that's never really been our role." In any event, officials said, locals shouldn't notice the loss. "Midland County District Attorney Al Schorre said the effect on drugs in Midland will most likely be small," the paper reported.

While immediate reasons for disbanding centered on reductions in funds, Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter traced other tensions to increased state oversight by the Texas Department of Public Safety begun in 2002. "I have nothing opposed to DPS but I don't work for DPS and nobody in the task force should have to work for DPS," he told the Reporter-Telegram. This spring the Texas Legislature passed new legislation to require task forces to comply with DPS rules or lose their asset forfeiture income.

Local coverage included more detail about a letter from Governor Perry's Criminal Justice Division foretelling changes to the Byrne grant program that many task forces have taken as cancellation of their funding:

just last month the state announced it is, "closing out its Byrne Grant program to be effective March 31,2006," according to a Sept. 16 letter to task force commanders from Ken C. Nicolas, executive director of the CJD of the governor's office.

Congress combined the Byrne program with the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant in 2005 forming the new Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, but the change, as it affects task forces, has not yet worked through the governor's office.

In the September letter to task forces, Nicolas said the Criminal Justice Division "will announce a funding strategy for the new Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program in the coming months," the letter states, "The JAG program will support a statewide strategy that focuses on disrupting and dismantling criminal enterprise through collaboration between federal, state, and local agencies."

What this means for task forces is unclear.

"After March, nobody knows what will become of us," said DPS Lt. Sonia Garcia, commander of the West Texas Narcotics Task Force, one of the remaining 25 that has accepted the CJD's latest six month funding offer. "Nobody seems to have any real idea what will be done with the JAG money or if we will be included. After March, really your guess is as good as mine."

Now that most Texas counties, including the largest urban ones, no longer participate in drug task forces, the state should convert those resources into more productive programs providing drug treatment, strengthening probation, and focusing more on major crime instead of filling the prisons with non-violent addicts.

Midland County did the right thing by getting rid of its drug task force, but local officials have a fiduciary responsibility not to stop there: counties without task forces have an opportunity to apply for the same federal grant money to pay for other things, for example, drug courts and probation services that would let them draw down new state funds. They can choose not to, but their county's taxpayers no longer would benefit from that particular pot of their federal tax dollars.

See more Grits coverage of Texas drug task forces.

No comments: