Obama’s Anticrime Spending Hike: Will Congress Agree?


Federal anti-crime aid is surviving calls for spending cuts in Washington, at least in President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2014.

The plan issued last week included a surprisingly large number of increases in a variety of Justice Department programs.

The administration seems to be betting on the notion that a cautious Congress will go for crime-fighting ideas that are backed by scientific evidence.

Previous Obama budgets endorsed evidence-based programs, but this is the first time that the Justice Department specifically has tied funding to the idea.

For example, the budget includes a new $40 million annual program for states and localities “to implement proven public safety strategies.”

It also includes $25 million for what the budget calls projects of “evidence-based, data-driven justice system realignment” that replaces costly programs with less costly alternatives.

$35m for justice innovation

Obama would enlarge to $35 million a criminal justice innovation program that would target high-crime neighborhoods in collaboration with the federal Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education to fight problems like drug abuse and gang activity.

The Obama administration already had initiatives called Smart Policing and Smart Probation, using data for model programs to improve the justice system in those areas.

The new budget would start a smart prosecution effort to aid prosecutorial decision-making, especially for non-violent offenders. It would involve only $5 million, a pittance by federal standards.

One area that could get a big boost is prisoner re-entry, under the federal Second Chance Act, which would rise by $56 million to $119 million annually.

The Justice Department would use much of this money to promote “pay for success” projects that get social investors to collaborate with government to create effective anti-crime programs.

For the first time, the administration would create a $10 million line item in the budget to replicate Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement idea (HOPE), which monitors probationers closely with “swift and certain” jail stays and treatment for those who fail drug tests.

More money would be spent from the federal Crime Victims Fund, which gets fines paid in federal court cases, for a new program called Vision 21 to improve delivery of services to victims nationwide. The Justice Department has been discussing Vision 21 for several years but has never put it into action.

The COPS program, which funds community-oriented policing efforts, would double its budget to $241 million, but most of the increase is the school safety program that the President proposed after the Newtown, CT school massacre.

The Senate is expected to debate school crime in the coming days as part of a gun-control measure.

Basic police hiring in the federal budget, for which congressional Republicans never have had much enthusiasm because it was championed by Democrat Bill Clinton, would remain at its current level.

The basic program of helping states and localities on a broad range of anti-crime programs, the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, would get a slight increase of $25 million to $395 million annually.

Organizations from across the justice system have been campaigning to preserve this program, which has suffered deep budget cuts in recent years.

Projects dealing with violence against women would remain at their current level, $412.5 million. Changes in the program were incorporated in the newly authorized Violence Against Women Act, enacted by Congress after a long debate.

Overall, the Justice Department’s anti-crime work got much support from the White House, including two other major areas that were covered in The Crime Report last week, juvenile justice and justice reinvestment.

“We are very strong in areas involving law enforcement, science, innovation, juvenile justice, and victim services,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary said in an interview.

Debating waste

On the day the Obama budget was sent to Congress, House Republicans chose to hold a hearing on what they termed waste in Justice Department spending, including conferences that critics said spent too much money on food.

Leary said her agency had “cut conference spending to the bone” after a Justice Department Inspector General’s report alleged excesses.

The big question now is whether the proposed increases have much chance of enactment.

Because of Congress’ failure to agree on a long-term federal spending plan, all agencies are experiencing 5 percent spending cuts under a process known as sequestration.

Another threat to federal anticrime aid to states and localities is that each cabinet department has authority to shift some funds to avoid employee furloughs.

At Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder has said that he might trim the anti-crime programs to preserve jobs in the department’s biggest internal agencies–the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons.

Federal prisons are a point of focus for Obama critics on the left.

The $8.5 billion set aside for federal prisons and detention, a proposed 3.5 percent increase over fiscal year 2012, consumes almost one third of the entire Justice Department budget.

Unlike many states, where prison populations and spending are headed downward, spending on federal prisons is going nowhere but up.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington DC bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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