Sheriffs protest fed drug-war fund cuts

PORTLAND, Ore. – From Arizona to Oregon and east to Kentucky, county sheriffs are bracing for stiff cuts in a federal funding program that has helped them battle drug cartels. Congress in January cut funding for the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant by two-thirds, from $520 million to $170 million for fiscal 2008. Local agencies say that’s a threat to the officers who do much of the law enforcement spadework. The Byrne program is not without controversy, having drawn allegations of abuse. But many enforcement organizations consider it essential to their local efforts. Sheriff Gil Gilbertson of Josephine County in southwest Oregon said pending cuts in Byrne money and in federal payments made to counties to offset the loss of timber revenues have essentially disbanded the Josephine Interagency Narcotics Team (JOINT). “We’ve just withdrawn from JOINT,” he said. “There’s no funding. And we know the (Mexican) cartels are at work.” The Bush administration has argued that the program should end because crime is down and the money is needed elsewhere. That assessment clashes with reports from many states of record hauls of drugs, especially methamphetamine and marijuana, and increased activity by drug gangs. “If we don’t get some funding back we’ll be in deep trouble when it comes to drug enforcement,” said Iowa drug enforcement chief Gary Kendall. He said 85 percent of the state’s new cases last year were by county interagency drug teams that get Byrne grant money, but the funding cuts will reduce those agencies’ employees from 59 to 20. Kendall said Iowa’s problem is methamphetamine, which now comes mostly from Mexico since Iowa tightened access to over-the-counter medications that contain ingredients used in home meth labs. Money from the Byrne program can be used for other programs as well, including anti-gang efforts, some prosecution costs and child and spousal abuse prevention. But critics say the program has been tainted by abuse and corruption, sometimes racially based, with many complaints coming from Texas. Best-known is a case in Tulia, Texas, where a 1999 Byrne-funded investigation led to the cocaine arrests of 46 people, most of them black, on evidence so flimsy that 38 were pardoned by Gov. Rick Perry in 2003. The undercover agent responsible for the arrests was convicted of perjury and the defendants got a $5 million settlement from the state. The Texas ACLU has identified more than a dozen other Byrne-funded operations it says were abusive and several other states have investigated similar complaints. Texas has imposed strict limits on Byrne-funded drug task forces. Some national drug enforcement leaders say it makes more sense to go after the higher-ups rather than fill local jails with lesser offenders. “But where the rubber meets the road, it’s the local sheriff and police departments” who do the groundwork, said John Cary Bittick, sheriff of Monroe County, Ga., and the congressional liaison for the National Sheriffs’ Association. In Oregon, local drug agents last year pulled up a record 262,000 marijuana plants, double the number for 2006, but their Byrne funding will drop from $3.4 million last year to $1.2 million this year. Most seizures of marijuana “grows” in Oregon are made in the state’s southwest corner, but counties there already are on the ropes from sharp cuts in federal payments made to offset revenue losses resulting from cutbacks in logging on national forests. The sheriff of one county in that region, Mike Winters of Jackson County, says Mexican cartel activity has spilled into his jurisdiction from Northern California. “The Mexican cartels are growing it and if they plant 100 gardens and get 50 taken off, they still make a lot of money,” he said after last year’s growing season. Kentucky, the second-largest marijuana producer after California, is in similar straits. “Local governments have already put up money and they can’t put up any more,” said Van Ingram, branch manager for compliance for the Kentucky Office of Drug Compliance. ___ On the Net: Sheriffs Association:


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