Sunday, January 08, 2006

Grits' 2005 Top Ten Texas Drug War Stories

Upon reviewing more closely the Austin Chronicle's top ten 2005 drug war stories, I realized only three actually were Texas-related, and by a longshot those weren't the ones I'd consider the most important drug war-related news items of 2005, so I thought I'd compile my own Texas-specific list, just for fun.

Here's the Grits for Breakfast version of the Top Ten Texas Drug War Stories of 2005. Be sure to let me know what you think I missed:

  1. Mexican border wars: The Mexican-based Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, with federal, state and local Mexican law enforcement, parts of the military, and hired American gunmen serving as their proxies, are engaging in an open shooting war in Nuevo Laredo to decide who controls the drug traffic flowing through that town. The prize: Control of Interstate I-35 to San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, then on up to Kansas City and Des Moines, all the way to Chicago and beyond. The US supplies guns and cash headed south, Mexico supplies the drugs, mules, and foot soldiers as cannon fodder headed north. This sure makes the immigration problem more difficult to solve.
  2. Cameron County Sheriff worked for drug traffickers: The headline pretty much says it all -- Cameron County is on the Mexican border at the mouth of the Rio Grande (Brownsville is the county seat), and the sheriff and his men were escorting drug runners through their jurisdiction for hefty fees. He was sentenced in December.
  3. 'Blue Wall of Silence' crumbling in Sheetrock scandal: The wheels of justice turn slowly in the Dallas fake drug scandal -- colloquially known as the "sheetrock" scandal because for a year or so investigators falsely thought the soruce of the fake drugs was ground up sheetrock (it was really pool chalk; both are made of gypsum). One of the officers involved turned state's evidence against his former partner in December, alleging that former narcotics officer Mark Delapaz actually faked informant payments to pocket the cash himself. Dozens of people, most of them undocumented immigrants, were falsely convicted of drug running based on informants' testimony, set up with fake cocaine and meth shipments. Half of all the cocaine and 1/4 of all the meth supposedly seized by Dallas PD in 2001 turned out to be fake. Shamefully, three quarters of the Dallas narcotics officers who apparently faked field tests on the "drugs" in question still serve on the police force in Dallas.
  4. Lege and Governor rein in drug task forces: In the wake of the Tulia episode and other scandals, the Texas Legislature passed HB 1239 requiring drug task forces to begin following Department of Public Safety rules or lose their asset forfeiture income. Immediately, many announced they'd close down rather than do so. After the law took effect in September, the Governor announced he'd shift Byrne grant spending away from drug task forces in March to use it for other items including drug treatment and border security (see Operation Linebacker, below).
  5. Lege promotes drug courts, stronger supervision: Governor Perry vetoed Texas' most important probation-strengthening legislation, but three "riders" added to the state budget used funding carrots to encourage creation of graduated sanctions systems to reduce probation revocations (and therefore prison entries). Many thousands of drug and other offenders will be affected by the changes. Look for the vetoed legislation to return in 2007, since even the Governor's veto message said the probation system was broken and he wanted to reconsider it next session without one or two minor items in the bill.
  6. Fourth Amendment protections vetoed: When police search vehicles at traffic stops they're looking for two things: drugs and guns. (Add alcohol to the list if the driver is a minor.) The Texas Legislature acted decisively in 2005 to protect drivers' right to be free from unreasonable searches, passing SB 1195 requiring police to obtain written or recorded consent to search vehicles at traffic stops if the officer doesn't have probable cause. (On guns, HB 823 protecting gun owners right to carry a weapon in their vehicle when traveling became law September 1.) Governor Perry vetoed SB 1195, but as with probation (somewhat oddly) encouraged the Legislature to reconsider the issue and bring up the topic in the 80th Legislature in 2007 (conveniently, after his re-election campaign).
  7. Byrne grant cuts spur shift to "Operation Linebacker": Congress and President Bush have slashed the budget of the "Byrne Justice Assistance Grant" program, which in Texas mostly in the past went to pay for multi-jurisdictional drug task forces like the one in Tulia. In response, Governor Perry is shifting those funds away from drug task forces and toward a variety of other priorities, especially a plan presented by border sheriffs called "Operation Linebacker." The gist of this plan appears to be that each of those sheriffs receives $367,000 cash with no strings attached to improve border security for one year. Sounds like a great "plan," doesn't it?
  8. DPS lab backlog fills county jails: Counties that use Texas Department of Public Safety labs to process tests on seized drugs (and these are important: see #3 above), find that defendants are waiting in jail up to two months longer than when those tests are performed by private labs. Lab tests cost around $125, while county jail costs are $40-$50 per day, so this practice not only unfairly penalizes certain defendants, but is also penny wise and pound foolish. Many county jails in Texas are already overcrowded.
  9. Harris County unnecessarily jailing low-level drug offenders: In 2003, the Texas Legislature and Governor Perry approved HB 2668, telling judges to order probation and treatment instead of incarceration for first-time, low-level drug offenders (possession of less than a gram of powder or pills, in Texas, is a "state jail felony"), diverting about 4,000 people per year away from prison per year, according to official estimates. But Harris County prosecutors and judges flaunted the intent of the law, extensively using a loophole to require up to 6 months of county jail time as a "condition" of probation, even when the only way to house those prisoners was to make them sleep on mattresses on the floor.
  10. House Committee says 'reduce pot penalties': The Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee unanimously voted in 2005 for HB 254 reducing penalties for low-level marijuana possession from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor -- a fine-only offense the equivalent of a traffic ticket. Three Dems and three Republicans voted for the bill, which would also have required offenders to take a drug education class. No one from law enforcement opposed it. The move would have saved counties tons money and reduced jail overcrowding, but was never placed before the full House for a vote. The Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman who backed the bill, former Travis County Sheriff Terry Keel (R-Austin), has since filed to run for a Justice's seat on the statewide Court of Criminal Appeals.


Anonymous said...

I'd add the whole pseudoephedrine ban thing and the war on meth, but otherwise looks pretty good. Or actually, bad, but a good list!

Anonymous said...

One of the problems of trying to count the 'butcher's bill' of the total costs of the DrugWar on society is simply that they are so vast and huge, covering nearly every sector of our economy, that it's impossible to measure it's total dimensions.

And that, of course, is just the money part. The costs in DrugWar-sired human misery are incalculable.

And one of those costs has been the effect that mandatory minimums have had. A cost that will very shortly become quite clear, as many of those first unlucky souls who had the book thrown at them when the "man-min" madness began 20 years ago are due to be released from prison. Released into an economy that has become even more hostile to former inmates than when they were first incarcerated thanks to increased competition for the remaining jobs left.

I expect the recidivism rates to begin skyrocketing in about 2 years as those who already have the 'black mark' of prison on their records - which in many cases is practically an economic death sentence as few would hire a 'con' to begin with - find that competition overwhelming.

Anonymous said...

I think the reason for Harris County detaining what would appear to be small time drug users or trafficker's is that they have the potential to get so much worse and be a public safety hazard. But there are not enough rehab programs that people can afford to send them to instead of the jail.
For example, my brother-age25 is on his 3rd DUI. (due to doctor ordered and legitimate injury related prescription pain drugs, which he is naturally addicted to now) Had he been detained longer the first time(90 days at least to clean his system out), given rapid detox meds, and mandatory sent to 6 months no cost inpatient rehab, he would not be there again today. Also, if he had access to healthcare he might not be in the jail now either, because he could have been treated for his injury instead of having to seek pain meds. But he does not so he, and people like him clog up the jail system. They cannot function responsibly outside the jail due to the impaired cognitaive function due to pain med overuse, the depresion that comes with trying to detox from it, and the constant urge to use again, but they don't really belong in jail, but there is no other place for them to go.