Senate Likely to Save COPS; House Panel Wants U.S. Prison Study

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Repeating a scenario from a year ago, the U.S. Senate seems likely to save the nearly two-decade-old federal Community Oriented Policing Services program (COPS).

After the Republican-led House subcommittee that funds the Justice Department last week voted to zero out COPS for the federal spending year that starts October 1, its Democrat-led Senate counterpart voted $394 million for hiring local police officers and related activities. The Senate plan would hire about 1,400 police officers nationwide but the final figure is subject to negotiation with the House.

The Senate panel’s bill also included $385 million for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, $417 million for Violence Against Women Act activities and $279 million for juvenile justice and mentoring grants. Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said the proposal “is first and foremost a public safety bill that funds Federal, State, and local law enforcement who protect us from criminals, scammers, terrorists, predators, and hackers.”

Senators were generous to the FBI, giving the agency an increase of $368 million to $8.4 billion for FBI salaries and expenses, $368 million above the fiscal year 2013 enacted level. Senators said the increase would provide for 1,500 more terrorism, cyber intrusion, and violent crime investigations.

The Senate committee would spend $150 million through the COPS Office to allow communities to hire school safety personnel, conduct school safety assessments, and fill gaps in school safety plans–essentially the plan that President Barack Obama sought after last December’s Newtown school shootings. The House panel would provide $75 million; the final figure is likely to be a compromise between the two numbers.

The other big internal Justice Department agency, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, also would get an increase from the Senate panel, of $159 million, to raise its annual spending total to $6.9 billion.

Notably, the House appropriations subcommittee, headed by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), issued a plan this week to spend $1 million on a nine-member, bipartisan “Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections” to spend a year studying “challenges in the federal corrections system.”

Under the proposal, which would have to be approved by the Senate, the task force would “develop practical, data-driven policy options to increase public safety, improve offender accountability, reduce recidivism, and control growth of spending on corrections.” The federal prison population has been growing in recent years as many states have reduced their inmate counts.

The Wolf plan would have the new task force study “lessons learned” from “successful state-level justice reinvestment initiatives; and evaluate current and potential criminal justice policies, including the cost-effectiveness of spending on corrections.”

The task force would be named for Charles “Chuck” Colson, former counsel to President Richard Nixon, who later founded the Prison Fellowship and Justice Fellowship to “champion prisoner rights and fight injustices within the criminal justice system,” the House subcommittee said.

Congress watchers stressed that neither the House nor Senate committee spending plans for the Justice Department unveiled in the last week are the final word on federal spending. In fact, the strong likelihood is that once again most of the federal bureaucracy would be funded by a so-called “continuing resolution” in which Congress bundles appropriations for most or all departments into one massive bill.

Still, the House and Senate spending levels agreed on by committees that study departmental budgets provide guidance to the congressional leaders who craft the eventual omnibus spending bill.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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