Criminal justice groups call for ending low-level drug possession arrests

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Four organizations that reviewed 2,900 drug possession arrests from June 2017 to May 2018 announced they found “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.”

Before releasing the full report later this month, Grassroots Leadership, The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law revealed some key findings Tuesday from their research.

The report said while only about 9% of Travis County’s population were black in 2017 and 2018, nearly 30% of drug arrests involved African Americans.

They only looked at cases where the suspects had less than one gram of an illegal drug.

Photo Courtesy: Grassroots Leadership, The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and The Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.

“Racial disparity in the criminal justice system is no surprise. In fact, it’s the leading driver behind mass incarceration,” said Douglas Smith, Senior Policy Analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Smith explained, “What was surprising was the extent to which arrests were arising from minor traffic stops. It was failure to signal, no registration. The officer would stop the individual and find some probable cause to search the vehicle.”

According to the report, in cases that involved black people, 47% of those cases originated from motor vehicle stops. For people who are Hispanic, that number was 57%.

Photo Courtesy: Grassroots Leadership, The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and The Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.

The other arrest circumstances are:

  • SD: Suspected of Dealing
  • SUD: Suspected of Using Drugs
  • WC: Welfare Check
  • SV: Suspicious Vehicle
  • SP: Suspicious Person
  • TS: Traffic Stops

Smith said, “It just underscores how racial disparities are the rule within the criminal justice system.”

Last week, Austin’s Office of Police Oversight concluded black and Hispanic drivers were getting pulled over at higher rates.

According to the city, a bigger number of traffic stops in east and northeast Austin led to arrests, whereas drivers who got pulled over in west Austin received warnings.

The new analysis by the four groups found drug possession arrests for less then one gram of an illegal substance was concentrated in east or southeast areas. They identified:

  • Near the Rundberg Lane/I35 corridor
  • In downtown Austin; the highest concentration near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH)
  • On East Riverside Drive,
  • Between East Oltorf Street and East Riverside Drive
  • In the William Cannon Drive/I-35 corridor

Smith told KXAN, “I had a substance use disorder and I’m treated currently for mental illness. What I do know is that in the communities that are most over policed and most impacted by drug arrests, they have the least access to substance abuse services.”

The report called for:

  1. Reducing the use of motor vehicle stops as primary means of drug enforcement.
  2. Developing a deflection program for people who want and need help
  3. Allowing police to refer people to services instead of arresting them.
  4. Adopting a Good Samaritan policy so people who call 911 for an overdose isn’t arrested
  5. Ending prosecution and incarceration of people for having less then one gram of a controlled substance

Smith said, “Imagine if it were your next door neighbor, your son, your daughter or your spouse who’s struggling with this, the last thing you would ask for is for that person to be arrested.”

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