Debating the drug war: Is incarceration the right approach?

In the process of accepting a routine grant for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, ACC Commissioners had a real conversation about the local government’s continuing role in the drug war and what they can do locally to help reverse mass incarceration.

Background

Georgia has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, locking away about 100,000 residents behind bars. The only states with a higher rate are Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Georgia’s incarceration rate is nearly double that of Cuba and eight times that of China. No country on earth locks up more people per capita.

But it hasn’t always been this way. 

In the 1970s, Georgia had less than half the number of people behind bars per capita, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. But starting with President Richard Nixon, accelerating under Ronald Reagan and continuing under Bill Clinton, the “War on Drugs” boosted the US incarceration rate to levels not seen since the pre-Civil War era of slavery. Georgia’s rate has come down somewhat since its peak in the 1990s and 2000s, mostly thanks to Governor Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform efforts. However, Governor Brian Kemp is currently reversing those efforts.

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Nationwide, Black Americans are 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested on a drug offense than white Americans, despite roughly equal rates of illegal drug use.

Dueling op-eds

Commissioner Mariah Parker
Commissioner Mariah Parker

Commissioner Mariah Parker published a speech opposing the war on drugs which they later gave at the mayor and commission meeting on December 7. In their speech, Parker urged their colleagues to vote against accepting a grant for the police department (amounting to $139,460) which was given in exchange for participation in the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force. While accepting this grant has historically been non-controversial for the commission, that has changed in recent years. 

In their op-ed, Parker criticized the drug war as a failure and even worse, as a means of “racial control” which “dispose[s] of Black people en masse and destabilize[s] the[ir] communities.”

ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill quickly fired back with an op-ed of his own, saying that Parker was undermining ACCPD’s efforts to fight crime and turning a blind eye towards violent gangs. Spruill even accused them of playing “the race card,” saying that Parker wants to excuse violent criminals “simply because they are Black.” Spruill also disparaged academics cited by Parker, saying that only “misguided individuals” would listen to researchers “who have never stepped foot in Athens.”

Whether it is appropriate for a local government official like Spruill to attempt to influence the political decision-making process is currently being examined by commissioners.

Debating the same grant every year

This isn’t the first time that Parker has spoken out against the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant

In 2019, they temporarily delayed acceptance of that year’s grant until their colleagues agreed to establish a police oversight board within six months. Parker had hoped that an oversight board could provide guidance to the commission on whether they should accept grants like this in the future. However, creating this body took far longer than they anticipated. The oversight board was established only recently and has still not convened its first meeting.

That left the commission without community guidance on this issue for the past two years, causing long discussions each time the grant has come up for renewal.

Commissioner Tim Denson
Commissioner Tim Denson

In 2020, Commissioner Tim Denson suggested removing cannabis arrests as a goal of the drug task force; he wanted to focus on opioids and amphetamines instead. This compromise satisfied other progressive commissioners and allowed ACCPD to continue receiving the grant money.

However, Denson’s compromise seems to have done little to reduce cannabis arrests since 2020. According to ACC Manager Blaine Williams, that’s because the drug task force had only ever charged simple cannabis possession when it was tacked on to a more serious violation, which the police would not shy away from enforcing. So whether the task force has the goal of cannabis arrests or not, we should not expect the number of arrests to change much.

This year’s debate

After failing twice to find a compromise, progressive commissioners like Parker were back at square one when the grant came up for renewal again this year. They could vote yes and continue supporting the Northeast Georgia Drug Task Force for a third year, or they could vote no and refuse $139,460 that would otherwise go to ACCPD.

Parker made their opinion on the topic quite clear in their op-ed, which was released in the days just before the vote. Some of Parker’s colleagues agreed that the issue deserved an in-depth conversation, but they said that this grant acceptance vote was not the time.

The commission discusses the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant.
Commissioner Carol Myers
Commissioner Carol Myers

A discussion broke out anyway when others went into more detail on their opinions. For example, Commissioner Carol Myers said that she was opposed to the war on drugs but expressed concern about violent crime and the relationship between illegal drug sales, gangs and violence. “While I support the desire to reduce mass incarceration, I also want to deal with the violence that people are living with in our community,” she said.

Aggravated assault, for example, is up in Athens about 36% in 2020 and 2021.

Commissioner Jesse Houle disagreed, saying “I think it’s important that we stop conflating drug charges with violent crime. They’re not the same thing. Instead of enforcing people’s possession of drugs, we should be investigating conspiracy, grand theft, gun violence and homicide. It’s a waste of our local resources to have officers fighting the federal government’s decades-long, failed war on drugs.”

Denson made the case that the commission should continue to accept the grant, which he emphasized could be used for several different purposes beyond enforcement, including drug treatment, prevention and mental health programs. “I challenge our staff and our police department to think outside the box. We’ve been doing this drug task force for a long time. Let’s still take this funding but run some programs that are more fitting.”

Commissioner Ovita Thornton agreed, saying “you don’t not accept it, you redirect it to where it will do the most good.”

Unfortunately, changing ACCPD’s application, which was made in October, was impossible this late in the grant process. Applying to start a treatment or prevention program with the money would have to wait until next year. To that end, Williams told commissioners that “the day that we find out it’s available [next year], we’ll let you know.”

The vote to accept the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant passed 7-2, with Parker and Houle voting no. Commissioner Allison Wright was absent.

Other commission business

Fighting homelessness

The commission approved Athenian First Development Corporation to run a new eviction prevention program based on Gwinnett County’s “Project Reset” in a unanimous vote. In an 8-1 vote, they also approved the Athens Alliance Coalition to run an official homeless encampment that will be opening soon (Commissioner Mike Hamby was the lone no vote).

ACC staff recommended denial of both of these contracts, for similar reasons.

The cost was one reason – in total, it will be $3.7 million for the first year, with a possible 10-month extension for the official homeless encampment costing another $1.25 million. Overhead costs run extremely high in both of these proposals. ACC staff are also concerned that neither Athens Alliance nor Athenian First have any experience with federal funds or the associated reporting requirements.

Therefore, both of these projects have the potential to fail completely. 

Knowing that, ACC staff plan to mete out the funding in tranches, with documentation of full compliance with all federal requirements necessary before either group would receive the next tranche. That means the money, which comes from the American Rescue Plan, won’t be completely wasted; in the event of total failure, these projects would be cut short.

Commissioners ultimately decided that both programs were worth the risk for the benefits they might bring those in Athens who are living in a precarious housing situation (or are already homeless). Both applicants were the only ones who applied to run their respective programs.

New rent relief rules for local non-profits put on hold

Should non-profits doing valuable work that benefits the public be forced to pay rent in order to use government buildings? The commission is currently considering how they want to handle this question.

In the past, some non-profits renting space in local government buildings have been given extremely low rent – as low as a dollar a year – but others have been given no benefit at all. The rules governing rent relief have been inconsistent and, according to some non-profits like the East Athens Development Corporation, unfair or even discriminatory.

The commission has recently re-worked these rules and were set to pass them last week. However, they were put on hold at the request of the Town and Gown Players, a local theatre company that has been in a unique situation for decades. The building they perform in was donated to the local government in 1969 with the understanding that they would receive free or extremely reduced rent indefinitely. That would come to an end if the new, more consistent rules on rent relief pass.

While these kinds of loopholes are exactly what the new rules were designed to eliminate, it’s certainly understandable that a small theatre group would have difficulty paying a substantial amount in rent, particularly during a pandemic. Commissioners put the item on hold and will take a second look at their new rent relief rules soon.

This item will come back before them sometime next year.

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