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

Feb 18, 2020

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.

From 2017-2018, black people made up 29.4 percent of possession of controlled substance (POCS) cases, despite comprising only 8.9 percent of the county's population.
Credit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and the UT Law Civil Rights Clinic

Doug Smith, a senior policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said enforcement of low-level drug possession is “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,” he said.

About 28% of those arrested for low-level drug possession were under 25. The report says for young people of color, an arrest increases the likelihood of future jail time.  

The majority of individuals arrested for possession of a controlled substance were under the age of 36.
Credit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and the UT Law Civil Rights Clinic

The report makes several recommendations, including terminating prosecution and incarceration for possession of less than 4 grams of a controlled substance. The report also calls for developing a harm reduction-based strategy to address substance abuse.

Cate Graziani, the policy and operations director at the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, says countries that focus on a public health approach to substance abuse issues have seen no increase in crime and lower rates of overdose.

“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,” she said. “Ultimately, this is the only approach that has been proven to be effective in addressing problematic drug use.”

Got a tip? Email Jerry Quijano jerry@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.

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