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Drug agents laid off: necessity, or payback?

February 14, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Dozens of agents waging California's war on drugs are set to lose their jobs. Are the layoffs a financial necessity or political payback?

A judge is refusing to block Friday's layoffs at the California's Department of Justice. The layoffs were a result of state budget cuts. But critics say it's really political retribution.

You don't hear about them much but special agents within the California Department of Justice take on gangs and drug cartels daily, seizing heroin, marijuana and other illegal drugs on the streets.

But this Friday, almost the entire division is set to be laid off after losing a round in court to prevent the budget cuts.

At their height, they had more than 300 agents. At week's end, there will only be a few left.

That leaves local law enforcement to fend for themselves with maybe some help from the feds.

"Absolutely, we worry about it," said Larry Wallace, California Department of Justice. "These agents were very specialized in what they do. They've been around a long period of time and they've provided a service to the citizens in the state of California that has been unparalleled."

The Brown administration says the cutbacks were avoidable. It urged Republicans to go along with extending temporary tax hikes last year to save vital programs, but the votes weren't there.

"If the Legislature chose not to extend the temporary tax rates that were set to expire, then a number of programs were likely to go on the chopping block," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance.

The administration also points out local cities and counties were given an extra half-billion dollars in unrestricted funding this year and can use that to hire more drug enforcement agents.

Drug-prevention groups are worried.

Local cities and counties are already stretched thin, and what doesn't get seized by drug agents will likely end up in schools and in communities.

"I fear that there's going to be an explosion of drugs and once the issue is there, it's harder to get back under control," said Cynthia Siegel, executive director of Omni Youth Programs.

While some state field offices will have some state agents left in the offices, San Jose, Orange and Redding will be completely unmanned.

The governor's office says this is about budget cuts and financial situations, not about political payback.