Obama Wants $500 Million to Prod State Justice Reforms

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In his farewell budget to Congress, President Barack Obama wants $500 million to help states make broad justice reform plans.

The new “21st Century Justice Initiative” program was announced yesterday as part of a $29 billion request for the U.S. Justice Department for the year beginning October 1.

As outlined by DOJ officials, the new program would try to achieve three objectives: reduce crime, reverse policies that cause “unnecessarily long sentences and unnecessary incarceration” and build community trust in the justice system.

The administration has been supporting such reforms, but this is the first time they have been assembled in a single initiative. If it is approved by Congress, states, localities and tribes could compete for funds in one or more of the three specified subjects. The budget materials made clear that the incarceration piece would include provision of “front-end and reentry services” for defendants and convicted people.

Overall, the Obama DOJ budget request included a long list of requested increases for money, none of which is guaranteed to be enacted but most of which are likely to be popular in a Republican-dominated Congress.

Not surprisingly, the biggest single chunk is for law enforcement, including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which would get a 6.1 percent boost to nearly $15 billion next year. The proposal would add funds for national security and cyber security, including 217 new positions. The GOP will be reluctant to slash money for those key subjects.

Federal prisons and detention would get about the same total as the current year, nearly $9 billion. Various bills pending in Congress, as well as a recent report by the Congressionally-mandated Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, are urging cuts in certain mandatory minimum sentences. It’s unclear that Congress will pass any significant legislation this year, and even if it were enacted, it’s not likely to prompt immediate, large cuts in the federal prison population, which stood at 195,722 last week.

In fact, DOJ said it needs an additional $214 million for prison operations next year despite the early release late last year of about 6,000 inmates as ordered by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in an effort to reduce harsh penalties for drug crimes.

The DOJ Community Oriented Policing Services Office (COPS) never has been popular with Republicans because it was an inspiration of former President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but the Obama administration is seeking $74 million additional next year for its activities, which would bring the total to $286 million.

Most of the total would be for helping localities hire community policing offers, but the budget proposal includes $20 million to help law enforcement managers find the next generation of police leaders, and $5 million to improve law enforcement diversity.

The White House also is seeking $20 million to continue COPS “collaborative reform initiative,” which is promoting reform in several big city departments as well as St. Louis County, Mo., which became a focus after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. These efforts typically are sought by local police departments and are not to be confused with DOJ civil rights investigations, which can result in lawsuits seeking court ordered policing reforms.

DOJ wants $27.5 million to put into effect recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued a detailed report last year. The funding would continue to help local police departments equip officers with body-worn cameras to record interactions with citizens.

Programs seeking to reduce violence against women would get nearly $500 million, about the same as the current year. One new element is $4 million being sought for a new domestic violence firearms lethality reduction program. DOJ also seeks to increase projects under the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

At DOJ’s Office for Justice Programs, which funds projects in the state and local reform field, the agency is trying again to get more money from Congress for juvenile justice reform, which lawmakers have been steadily cutting in recent years.

For example, the administration wants $20 million for a “smart on juvenile justice initiative,” and an additional $103 million for a series of other programs in areas like delinquency prevention, children exposed to violence, and girls in the juvenile justice system.

DOJ said that “the recidivism rate among juveniles following release from secure or other residential placement remains alarmingly high,” but there is no assurance that Congress will come through with more funding.

The states have long depended on DOJ to provide grant for many innovative anticrime programs. The Obama budget would provide about $60 million more next year for such activities, many of which are awarded under the Byrne Justice Assistant Grants (JAG) program.

Critics have faulted federal officials for short-changing basic statistics and research on criminal justice issues, pointing for example to the lack of complete national data on police shootings.

The Obama administration hopes to help plug the gap by getting a total of $29 million more for the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the department’s research arm.

During the last budget cycle, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), then the new chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees DOJ appropriations, tried to eliminate the line item budgets for BJS and NIJ, but they were restored in negotiations with the Senate.

The way Congress allocates federal money, the Justice Department must compete with the Commerce Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for funds, and some anticrime programs are reduced or eliminated in the process.

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

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