Arvin West, the sheriff of Hudspeth County, Texas, is blasting U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for declaring yesterday that federal prosecutors would no longer pursue harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
He says federal border patrol agents in his border county are arresting but not prosecuting more and more minor drug offenders and he’s left with having to house them in the county jail — sometimes for months.
“When these people come through these federal checkpoints, they’re committing not only a federal crime, but a state crime — especially in Texas,” West told Here & Now. “And that dumps back on us when the federal government refuses prosecution or refuses to adopt the case. And we’ve taken that oath to do our job seriously down here.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. When Attorney General Eric Holder announced yesterday that the Justice Department won't pursue mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain low-level drug offenders, many criminal justice advocates applauded the move. Today, certain local law enforcement officials are not so happy, including Arvin West, sheriff of Hudspeth County, Texas, which is on the border with Mexico.
He says if the Justice Department won't prosecute minor offenders, under Texas law he still has to and that his county simply can't afford it. He joins us now. And Sheriff West, walk us through the problem you're facing.
SHERIFF ARVIN WEST: You know, when these people come through these federal checkpoints, they're committing not only a federal crime but a state crime, especially in Texas, and that dumps back on us when the federal government refuses prosecution or refuses to take up the case. And, you know, we've taken that oath to do our job seriously down here.
CHAKRABARTI: I see, so you have no choice but to pursue charges on the state and local level.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, we read about how you're handling some of these cases in the August edition of Texas Monthly magazine. It was written by a journalist who actually got caught by border security in your county. He was in possession of two buds of marijuana. And the Feds decided not to pursue charges with him, but he said that things got interesting when you showed up.
Sometimes you don't charge people with the actual drug possession but rather other misdemeanor crimes like paraphernalia.
WEST: Right. You know, this is something they would do in a plea agreement in court, and we're just sidestepping that process so we don't fill our jails up. You know, we're doing seven to 10 cases a day off that checkpoint.
CHAKRABARTI: And those seven or 10 cases a day are being transferred to you?
WEST: And it could be anything from like that reporter, a couple of buds, to a couple hundred pounds.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. And I gather that what you're saying is this is an undue burden on you and your office there in Hudspeth County.
WEST: We were getting reimbursed dollar for dollar by the federal government. Then they started paying us 50 cents on the dollar. And now we're about a nickel on the dollar if we see any of it. So - and as we're having to take the federal government's role, do their job and still not get reimbursed for it.
CHAKRABARTI: So would that mean, though, that you think that border security is picking up too many people for minor drug offenses when they cross the border?
WEST: Well, what do you consider minor? I mean it's illegal.
CHAKRABARTI: How much is it costing you to prosecute or pursue these cases that the federal government hands over to Hudspeth County?
WEST: We're probably spending 250,000, 300,000 a year. We're going over budgets here in just a few hours, and you know, scraping to make sure we can even have a budget this year.
CHAKRABARTI: So in the end, what's your message for Attorney General Holder?
WEST: Do your damn job.
CHAKRABARTI: Meaning what?
WEST: Prosecute these people and reimburse us for what we're helping you do, or do it all yourself.
CHAKRABARTI: So you want him to pursue those mandatory minimums for federal drug crimes?
WEST: Well, let's get everybody on the same page. You know, the unfortunate thing about the 80-year-old man that gets stopped out here coming from California who may or may not have it for medicinal purposes, he comes through the checkpoint, now I've got to deal with an 80-year-old man that's got medical issues that, you know, had a pound of marijuana.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Arvin West is the sheriff of Hudspeth County, Texas. Sheriff West, thank you so much for joining us today.
WEST: Thank you, have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.