End the Racist Drug War in Travis County

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Mar 2, 2020
The Appeal

This D.A. election could bring a big change in how Austin, Texas treats drug addiction

When Michael Bryant was found with illegal drugs last year, it landed him in jail for about a month, exacerbating his problems with addiction.

Bryant, who is now 33, had been struggling with drug addiction for much of his life, and the problems got worse in 2015, when he moved to Austin from New York after a difficult breakup. In February 2019, police found him with less than two ounces of marijuana a small amount of methamphetamines. He was charged with second-degree drug possession for the methamphetamines, even though Bryant says he had less than a gram diluted with water in a syringe.

His public defender told him that given the other drug-related felonies on his record, there was likely little he could do to avoid jail time, Bryant said. He badly needed treatment, and said he was just coming around to the idea of rehab. But before he could get help, he became entangled in the legal system and now owes thousands of dollars to probation.

“I don’t think that throwing people in jail and convicting them and throwing them in prison for small charges like that is going to do them any good,” Bryant said. “Those people aren’t going to get the help they need. They’re just going to get right out of prison and go right back to using drugs.” [node:read-more:link]

Feb 21, 2020
The Appeal

Study finds stark racial disparities for low-level drug offenses in Travis County, Texas

A coalition of criminal justice reform groups has found significant racial disparities in arrests and incarceration rates for people in possession of a gram or less of controlled substances in Travis County, Texas. A new report on the findings comes as the county’s largest police department, in Austin, faces accusations of institutional racism and overzealous policing of people for drug use, even in cases where both the City Council and the county prosecutor have said they will not prosecute.

The report, released Tuesday by four Texas-based organizations, shows a sharp uptick in the overall number of drug arrests across the county. “Between 2013 and 2017, the number of low-level Possession of a Controlled Substance (POCS) cases in Travis County increased by 43 percent,” while the county’s courts experienced a 67 percent increase in new felony drug possession cases, the report states. Travis County stands out from the rest of the state, with an increase in drug possession cases that was 2.5 times higher than other Texas courts. [node:read-more:link]

Feb 19, 2020

Travis County told to ‘do better’ and invest in drug treatment over arrests, report says

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Authorities must take a different approach towards addressing drug use in Travis County, according to the authors of a newly released report.

Earlier this month, the four criminal justice groups involved in a study into drug possession arrests revealed some of their findings.

They found that black residents of Travis County are disproportionately harmed – despite making up just 9% of the population, black people accounted for 29.4% of drug possession arrests between June 2017 and May 2018.

Now, the four organizations involved in the study – the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, Grassroots Leadership, and the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law – have released the full report.

Of the arrests analyzed, about half arose from motor vehicle stops, typically for minor traffic violations. [node:read-more:link]

Feb 18, 2020

Low-Level Drug Possession Arrests Are Hurting Travis County, Report Finds

Low-level drug possession arrests are ineffective and harmful to people who need community-based help, rather than jail time, a new report concludes.

The report, released Tuesday by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and the UT Law Civil Rights Clinic, analyzed Travis County data that found people of color are disproportionately arrested for these kinds of crimes.

Though black people made up less than 9% of Travis County's population between 2017-2018, for example, they accounted for almost 30% of possession arrests made during that time. [node:read-more:link]

Feb 14, 2020
Austin Chronicle

Opinion: The War on Drugs Got It Wrong

When I was arrested for my first drug offense, I was 19 years old. The War on Drugs told elected officials that Black people like me were the villains of the story and needed to be locked away in the name of public safety. Along with millions across the country, I was deemed disposable. For the next 20 years, I couldn't find a job or find a place to live in, and I panicked every time I was pulled over for fear that once again that disposable label would be placed on my forehead.

Today I celebrate my life as a partner, parent, son, brother, colleague, and friend in successful recovery from substance use disorder and mental illness. I do not owe my recovery to the criminal justice system; locking me in a cage harmed me and drove me further away from wellness. My recovery was made possible thanks to an amazing support network of friends and family dedicated to my best interests. As a formerly incarcerated Black man with behavioral health diagnoses, my success is a statistical anomaly – but it doesn't have to be. When we stop investing in systems of policing and punishment, we make space to create alternatives that promote wellness and healing for everyone.

Earlier this month, Grassroots Leadership, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, and the UT Law Civil Rights Clinic released a preliminary key findings report. The report finds that – in a city that systematically pushes Black people out of Austin and dwindled the population to just over 9% – Black people constitute over a third of all drug arrests. Half of the arrests resulted from minor traffic stops like driving with an expired registration or failure to signal. Half of possession of controlled substance cases directly related to medical or mental health crises, resulting in jail time of up to two years, delaying or denying the immediate need to respond to medical and mental health needs. [node:read-more:link]

Feb 14, 2020
Austin Chronicle


Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests: The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, Grassroots Leadership, and UT Law Civil Rights Clinic have released preliminary key findings of a new report highlighting racial disparities in low-level drug possession arrests in Travis County. Analyzing less-than-a-gram drug possession arrests in a one-year period, findings revealed Black residents represented 29.4% of the arrests studied while only comprising less than 9% of the county's population. In arrests involving Latinx individuals, 57% originated from motor vehicle stops. For Black motorists, that number was 44%. The report will be published in full later this month. [node:read-more:link]

Feb 10, 2020

Travis County District Attorney candidates talk about the war on drugs

AUSTIN, Texas — Grassroots LeadershipTexas Criminal Justice Coalition and Texas Harm Reduction Alliance held a forum Sunday to educate the community on candidates running for Travis County District Attorney and present questions to them. 

The forum specifically addressed the role prosecutors play in promoting public health approaches to drug use, harm reduction and pre-arrest diversion programs. 

District Attorney Margaret Moore, Workers Defense co-director Jose Garza and attorney Erin Martinson were all in attendance.

Recently, these groups along with the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law analyzed low-level drug arrests in 2017 and 2018. Their data showed even though African Americans make up 8.9% of the county's population, they account for 29.4% of drug possession arrests. During the forum, they asked the candidates how they would change that.  [node:read-more:link]

Feb 9, 2020

Travis County District Attorney candidates face questions on drugs, race, and the criminal justice system

AUSTIN (KXAN) — All three candidate vying to serve as Travis County’s District Attorney came face-to-face at a forum on Sunday afternoon. They are competing in what could be one of the most contentious local races in the March 3 primary election.

The three candidates are: current Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, who was elected in 2016, Workers Defense Project co-director Jose Garza, and defense attorney/victim service advocate Erin Martinson. They were questioned before an audience at a packed church on the role prosecutors play in promoting public health approaches to drug use, harm reduction, and pre-arrest diversion programs. 

The forum was hosted by Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and Texas Harm Reduction Alliance. These groups published findings last week that showed black people living in Travis County represent 29.4% of drug possession arrests, while making up just 8.9% of the population. [node:read-more:link]

Feb 5, 2020
Austin Monitor

Community reacts to APD racial profiling study at Public Safety Commission

Last week, a report from the city’s Office of Police Oversight, Office of Innovation, and Equity Office showed that black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be stopped in their vehicles by Austin police than white and Asian drivers. Following the release of the report, the Public Safety Commission heard from the community and the Austin Police Department at its Feb. 3 meeting.

“I’m tired of hearing fluff, I want to hear answers,” said newly elected Chair Meghan Hollis. “It’s time for all of us to call out systemic racism and implicit bias.”

The report found that based on APD motor vehicle stop data for 2018, black people constituted 15 percent of those pulled over by police and 25 percent of those who were arrested. In Austin, the black population makes up roughly 8 percent of the total population. Hispanics accounted for 33 percent of vehicle stops and 44 percent of people pulled over and arrested by police although they represent 31 percent of the population. Whites, according to the data, had a negative chance of being pulled over. While Caucasians make up 54 percent of Austin’s population, they accounted for only 47 percent of traffic stops and 30 percent of those arrested as a result of being pulled over. [node:read-more:link]

Feb 5, 2020
Community Impact Newspaper

New reports spotlight racial disparities in motor vehicle stops, marijuana possession arrests in Austin, Travis County

People of color in Austin are policed at disproportionately higher rates than their percentage of the local population, and racial disparities in motor vehicle stops and arrests are widening, according to two new reports.

The findings

The first, published by the city of Austin on Jan. 30, analyzed Austin Police Department racial profiling data collected between 2015 and 2018.

One finding is that black residents—who make up 8% of the Austin population—accounted for 15% of motor vehicle stops and 25% of arrests in 2018.

APD classifies motor vehicle stops based on whether the race of the driver was known to the officer prior to the stop. [node:read-more:link]