Federal funding aimed at strengthening police departments’ ability to fight the War on Drugs disproportionally affected African-American populations, but did not improve police effectiveness, according to a working paper released this month by The Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR) at the University of Southern California.
The CESR paper focused on The Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program, a matching grant program authorized under the 1988 federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act.
The Byrne Grant program, which was revised in 2005 to include a local law enforcement block grant program and renamed the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAG), was regarded as a key tool in implementing the federal government’s efforts to curb narcotics trafficking.
It was aimed primarily at reinforcing state and local law enforcement efforts to intervene against traffickers whose operations often span local boundaries.
Byrne grants could be used to pay for additional police personnel, equipment, training, technical assistance and information systems, but about half the funding went to create multi-jurisdictional task forces.
By 1991, some 904 such task forces had been created.
States were required to match 25 percent of the expenses in order to receive the money, and by 1995, the program had already provided over $500 million in matching grants.
The authors of the working paper—Robynn Cox of the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, and Jamein P. Cunningham of the Department of Economics at the University of Memphis—studied cities funded under the program between 1987 and 2004, using federal expenditure data from the Consolidated Federal Funds Report and arrest data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
“Our results indicate that for every $100 increase in Byrne grant funding per capita, arrests for drug trafficking increased by roughly 22 per 100,000 white residents and by 101 arrests per 100,000 black residents,” the authors wrote.
These results indicated that “federal funding for the War on Drugs can be linked directly to the increase in racial disparities in arrest, disproportionally affecting blacks,” they added.
The authors said their study was intended to broaden explanations for the rise in mass incarceration in the U.S. since the 1980s by examining the interconnections between federal, state and local policies—and, more specifically, how federal programs such as intergovernmental grants “affected the behavior of local law enforcement, mass incarceration, and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”
“There is…increasing evidence that policies associated with the war on drugs led to increases in incarceration rates, as well as racial disparities within the criminal justice system,” the paper said.
It added that “there is still some debate regarding how mass incarceration happened; specifically, is it attributable to state and federal policies, or is it the result of unchecked actions of local officials (operating under moral hazard), such as prosecutors and police?
“However, so much focus on finding one culprit might downplay just how interconnected federal, state, and local policies are.”
Although the grant program led to an increase in the hiring of police personnel, it did not improve police effectiveness or deterrence, “as measured by total and violent crime rates or arrests for both drugs and violent crimes,” the study said.
A full copy of the report is available here.
This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Brian Edsall. We welcome readers’ comments.