NEW REPORT: Travis County drug possession arrests disproportionately harm Black residents

February 18, 2020

Researchers reiterate that county and city use harm reduction and public health strategies, not arrests and incarceration

Austin, TX — Today, researchers from four Texas-based organizations released their full review of 2,900 drug possession arrests in Travis County from June 2017 to May 2018. The data used to create their final report reveals troubling police practices that harm communities, exacerbate racial disparities in arrests and jail detention, and fail to address underlying needs of people who use drugs.

Ending the War on Drugs in Travis County, Texas: How Low-Level Drug Possession Arrests are Harmful and Ineffective” is a joint project of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, Grassroots Leadership, and the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. The report details the community harm that comes from arrest-based drug enforcement, while offering alternative approaches to address health and safety. The organizations conducted this research in response to rising rates of low-level drug possession arrests in Travis County.

Review of the data used in the report found that Black residents in Travis County represented 29.4 percent of drug possession arrests, despite comprising only 8.9 percent of the population. Researchers found that half of the arrests analyzed arose from motor vehicle stops, typically for minor traffic violations such as failure to signal or expired registration. The review also showed that drug possession arrests are concentrated in specific areas of Austin where Black and Latinx communities predominantly reside. These findings confirm a recent City of Austin report finding that Black and Latinx residents are overrepresented in Austin Police Department motor vehicle stops.

With the publication of the full report, the authors again emphasize the need to build upon current efforts, such as the Sobering Center and elimination of arrests for low-level cannabis possession, to create a different approach to addressing drug use within the county. Instead of arrest and incarceration, which are costly and disruptive to families and communities, local policy-makers should invest in resources that provide avenues for treatment for those who seek it, and prevent harms like overdose. 

When the report authors released key findings from the report earlier this month, they gave the following statements:

Doug Smith, Senior Policy Analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said, “Typical War on Drugs enforcement, especially for low-level possession, is a net negative for the community. Even short periods in jail result in the loss of jobs or housing, family separation, child welfare system involvement, and a host of long-term consequences that limit future opportunities.”

Cate Graziani, Policy and Operations Director at the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, said, “A harm reduction approach would limit the role of the criminal justice system in addressing substance use, and instead, link people to the appropriate support they need. Ultimately, this is the only approach that has been proven to be effective in addressing problematic drug use. Countries around the world that have abandoned the War on Drugs and focused on building a public health approach to substance use have seen no increase in crime rates, and have lower rates of communicable disease and overdose.”

David Johnson, Criminal Justice Organizer at Grassroots Leadership, said, “People should not be punished for needing help, yet the reality is that people have been locked away for mental illness and substance use for generations. I know firsthand the countless ways in which lives are torn apart by the misdiagnosis and mistreatment of public health issues as criminal justice ones. Punitive policing and mass incarceration help no one. It’s time for Travis County to do better and invest in services that help those who need it the most.”

Read the report here and the key findings here.

Contact: 

Cate Graziani, cgraziani@harmreductiontx.org

                Madison Kaigh, mkaigh@TexasCJC.org

                Maria Reza, mreza@grassrootsleadership.org