A Hold-The-Line Budget at Justice May Avoid Conservative Fire


In troubled economic times, President Barack Obama’s Justice Department spending plan for next year is a balancing act: a few tiny increases for popular programs, $1 billion in “efficiencies, savings and rescissions,” and holding the line on most everything else.

Overall, the $27.1 billion budget sent to Congress today would be an 0.4 percent drop from this year.

Among the few items that would get more money: prosecution of financial crimes, civil rights enforcement, combating human trafficking, and increasing prison and detention capacity. Steady funding was assured for national security and Southwest border work.

Attorney General Eric Holder has been under fire from Republicans for the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-running operation on the Arizona border with Mexico. The proposed fiscal 2013 budget seems designed to forestall other criticism that the Obama administration is in any way soft on crime.

Obama would maintain many items favored by leaders of both parties, including the Violence Against Women Act, the Second Chance Act for prisoner re-entry, and anticrime aid to state and local governments, the so-called Byrne JAG program.

One item that Republicans don’t like much, the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program dating from the Bill Clinton era, would stay but at $257 million, a far cry from higher appropriations in earlier years.

By supporting more prisons, the Obama budget plan annoyed advocates of sentencing reform like Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), who expressed disappointment that the administration avoided “bold changes” that “rethink the use of incarceration, for example, following the lead of forward-looking states that are using probation and alternative sentences more frequently for nonviolent, low-level offenders.”

Stewart noted that even conservatives like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Republican Asa Hutchinson, former Drug Enforcement Administration chief, back such changes.

Juvenile justice advocates said they were pleased that the Obama budget would set aside $140 million for aid to state and local efforts to reduce juvenile crime and rehabilitate young offenders, but the total was below the $175 million sought by the Act-4-JJ Campaign, a coalition of 300 groups.

The $70 million proposed for state “formula” grants would be $30 million higher than Congress appropriated this year, and $40 million for the Title V delinquency prevention program would be $20 million higher than Congress granted.

Campaign leaders Liz Ryan of the Campaign for Youth Justice and Nancy Gannon Hornberger of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice said they would try to raise state formula funding to $80 million, but they noted that the account has been cut 55 percent over the last decade.

They also said that the Title V funds had been “gutted” in recent years, with money “allocated for other than statutory purposes.”

The budget would include a new $20 million “evidence based” juvenile justice grant program.

In cutting back on spending, the Justice Department still seems to be suffering the public-relations effects of what turned out to be an erroneous report by the department’s own Inspector General that the agency spent $16 apiece for muffins for attendees at a conference.

Even though the allegation was retracted (it turned out that $16 covered an entire breakfast at a hotel), the department instituted changes to limit its spending on conferences–a move protested by criminal justice organizations that say conferences can help accomplish needed changes nationwide.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and a contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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