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Crusade on the Cheap

August 24, 1986

President Reagan has declared war on drug trafficking. But if his highly publicized offensive against pushers and users is to have a lasting effect, it's going to cost money.

That became particularly evident last week in interviews by The Times with U.S. attorneys in major Southwest cities, including Los Angeles and San Diego, where most of the criminal cases generated by the new federal drug crackdown would be prosecuted. What they showed is that at the very time the Administration talks of sending hundreds of federal agents into the region to help stem the flow of drugs across the Mexican border, the number of federal attorneys is dropping because of budget cuts. In Los Angeles, U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner has lost 11 lawyers since Jan. 1; in San Diego, U.S. Atty. Peter K. Nunez has lost five attorneys--10% of his legal staff.

As a result, Bonner, Nunez and other federal prosecutors must delay legal action in many major cases, including those involving drugs. "Basically, you have an increased enforcement effort and a reduced prosecutorial effort going on at the same time," Nunez told Times reporter Jim Schachter. That equation won't work for long.

Nunez and other U.S. attorneys expressed optimism that, once the initial effort to increase the number of federal agents in the Southwest is completed, the Justice Department will follow up by assigning additional prosecutors to the region. We are not so sanguine, given Reagan's penchant for false economy in government. Especially frustrating is the President's notion that no matter how much taxes are cut, or how much the federal government's budget is scaled back, there will still be ways for the government to pay for the things that nobody else can do, like prosecuting suspects. That equation won't work very long, either.

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