By TONI WALTHALL News-Times Staff Thirteenth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Jamie Pratt says talk of the Drug Task Force disbanding is just that – talk.
"That’s just not true," he said. "I’ve been prosecuting attorney for seven years and the DTF has been here 15 to 20 years. We’re operating under a (Byrne) grant. We’ve gotten a grant every year and I have no reason to not continue believing that it is going to be funded. The federal government is not going to kill the program."
Pratt said the rumors may stem from budget cuts in the years since Sept. 11, 2001, when federal focus diverted slightly from the war on drugs to the war on terrorism.
"We’ve had a reduction in funds," he said. "At one time our grant was $250,000. Now, in round figures, we get about $200,000 a year." According to Pratt, the Byrne Fund provides millions of dollars, which the federal government earmarked for law enforcement. With drugs contributing to a majority of law enforcement problems across the nation, the Byrne funds have been directed to fight illegal drugs.
Pratt said the DTF grant system works on a matching basis, with a portion coming from federal and state funds. According to Pratt, the local task force must also raise 20 percent of the local matching funds.
"It’s not as easy as it used to be," he said. "When things were better around here and (the DTF) had no money, we would get help from the counties and sometimes, even corporations. Times aren’t so good these days, but we’re not going to sit around and cry about it. We just have to keep on moving and working with what we have."
Arkansas funding has dropped by 10 percent, making the DTF’s annual operating budget a little tight.
The DTF now operates with a smaller, two-person office staff, a director (Gregg Parrish of Camden) and no more than four active agents. Some law enforcement agencies in the district have been frustrated by the system, stating that seized property is back-logged because of a lack of action by the prosecuting attorney. Some have voiced frustration because the prosecuting attorney has not reimbursed the local agencies their portion of monies and properties seized from local drug arrests.
Pratt said that the 20 percent of local matching funds come entirely off of forfeitures from drug busts within the district.
The DTF Board consists of law enforcement officials (sheriff’s and police chiefs) in a six-county region.
"They are keenly aware that we have to raise this 20 percent of the $200,000 matching grant locally. That’s $40,000 from within (the 13 th Judicial) District," he said.
Agencies district wide operate under a "gentleman’s agreement," sharing duties when possible, according to Pratt.
"The DTF doesn’t do all of the cases. If a (police department) makes the arrest, and didn’t use DTF help, 25 percent would go to the DTF and 75 percent would go to the police department."
The arrest has to go through the entire legal process and result in a conviction before a judge can order that drug money and property either be forfeited or returned to the individual.
"If we win, the money comes to my office where it goes into the special asset forfeiture account," he said. "We then write checks back to the agencies that did the work or, often times, if the DTF is involved, we send a portion back to the agency.
Pratt did not respond to several requests for information and statistics on DTF activity.