November 05, 2004
The next Tulia?

I meant to note this before, but got caught up in the elections frenzy and never got around to it. Last month, an anti-drug task force arrested 72 people in Palestine, Texas on various drug-related counts. Note what the now-offline news report says at the end:

If convicted, many of the defendants could face a maximum sentence of life in prison. Other federal defendants face between 40 and 300 years.

Apparently, the justification for that is that all 72 were involved in "distribution". Given that by this calculation of the likely size of the crack market in rural Palestine, those 72 distributors would make up nearly half the entire user base, I think there may be a little stretching going on.

Why am I bringing up a comparison to Tulia here? Well, for one thing, all 72 of the people arrested are black. According to Census figures from 2000, 23.5% of the residents of Anderson County are black. What are the odds that 100% of Anderson County's crack-using and -distributing community are black?

Dave Mann of the Texas Observer asks the same question, and notes how this sort of task-force drug bust works:

All over Texas, federally funded drug task forces, with little oversight from state officials, have employed the same strategy. The task force targets a minority community and sends in an undercover officer or confidential informant armed with public funds to buy drugs. Over the course of a long investigation, the undercover officer befriends a group of addicts. Eventually, the undercover cop asks his addict friends to get drugs for him. When an addict goes to his or her dealer and scores a small amount of drugs for the cop, he or she has stepped into a felony charge of delivery of a controlled substance and, because of harsh sentencing guidelines, could face decades in jail.


Nearly all of the 56 defendants in state court are charged with delivering less than four grams of crack, according to the county indictments. At least 14 of them have no prior felony convictions, and eight more have had a clean record for at least 10 years. For instance, 43-year-old Ira Mae Gross, who has a clean record in Anderson County, is charged with just one count of delivering between one and four grams of crack to Kimbrew last June, according to her indictment. She now faces a second-degree felony drug dealing charge that could earn her a prison sentence of two to 20 years.

Many other suspects are seemingly longtime addicts. Henry Rhodes, Sr., 56, was convicted of possession of less than four grams of crack in 1995. He has no history of selling drugs, though. He was indicted on three counts of delivering crack to [task force confidential informant Othella] Kimbrew. Then there’s Charles E. Barrett, 45, who has a lone drug possession conviction from 1977. He too is facing one count of felony drug dealing for allegedly delivering less than a gram of crack to Kimbrew on June 22, 2004.

That's certainly being tuff-on-crime. Whether it makes sense or not to send people like Ira Mae Gross to jail for up to 20 years is something I'll leave up to you.

Scott Henson, from whom I got most of this info, has been following this case closely. Check his blog for future updates.

UPDATE: For some reason, that Texas Observer link is broken. It worked earlier today, when I read the article and copied the bits that I quoted. Not sure what happened, but I'll try to find out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 05, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Sounds like Tulia all over again. Be interesting how it shakes out. Let's all just hope that justice is served this time at the lowest possible level.

Posted by: manndan on November 5, 2004 12:29 PM

Let's see them try to pull that shit in the Fifth Ward.

Posted by: norbizness on November 5, 2004 2:00 PM

The Observer link is back up. They're sort of dead-tree guys over there. Thanks for getting the word out.

As for the Fifth Ward, the Harris County Narcotics Task Force is operated by the Baytown Police Department, the same department that decided they didn't need to discipline anybody after four of their officers beat Luis Torres to death. They operate across jurisdictions doing undercover drug work, and Harris County generates about half the drug convictions in the state.

The $3.5 million in federal grant money that pays for that task force could go for things Houston really needs like drug courts, crime lab renovations or expanded probation and drug treatment programs, so really y'all are pretty much in the same position as Palestine. The numbers just don't jump out at you the way they do in a rural area.

Posted by: Scott on November 6, 2004 10:31 AM