With a massive federal deficit looming, it was only a matter of time before conservatives targeted federal spending for anticrime programs. This was the week that the Republicans now running the House of Representatives took their first thorough swipe at Justice Department accounts that have mostly weathered major cuts so far.
The plan by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and his appropriations subcommittee colleagues for the year starting October 1 is dramatic: an end to the COPS program that has helped states and localities hire community police officers since 1994, no more funding for states to help pay the costs of imprisoning illegal immigrants, and big reductions in juvenile justice funding.
It’s part of an overall reduction of more than $1 billion in the Justice Department budget of $27 billion-plus. The FBI, under pressure to maintain its post-9/11 antiterror mission, would get a slight increase. So would the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which is the other big Justice Department agency. Unlike many state prison systems, the federal prison population keeps growing as the wars on drugs and white-collar crime continue. Another $3 billion-plus is spent on “legal activities,” all of those federal lawyers who prosecute and defend cases. No one is talking about attorney layoffs.
The largest remaining category is what the appropriations committee calls “state and local law enforcement activities.” A major lobbying effort by the National Criminal Justice Association, which represents state governments, helped keep the proposed reduction of the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program to about 17 percent, to $357 million annually. States use that money for a variety of programs, such as regional antidrug task forces.
Other categories did well in the committee proposal, meaning a fairly level budget. Congress long has supported the campaign to fight violence against women, which should continue to get more than $400 million. Another popular project is advocacy for missing and exploited children, which gets about $70 million.
The COPS program is backed by mayors and police chiefs but Republicans never have been enthusiastic about an idea invented by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. The alien detention aid, called SCAAP (State Criminal Alien Assistance Program), has not enjoyed lots of GOP support, either. Its allocation has been eroding and now stands at $274 million.
Juvenile justice is another apparent loser. The House appropriators would cut “formula” grants to states on juvenile issues from $62 to $40 million and retain youth mentoring programs but eliminate a host of other projects, mostly in the crime prevention field.
Because the House proposal is the beginning of a process that will take three months or longer, the game isn’t over yet. The spending plan still must proceed through the House and Senate. Already, law enforcement groups are mobilizing to save COPS. The largest organization, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is “very concerned about the elimination of COPS funding and will be working with members of Congress to reinstate this critical program,” says the group’s Meredith Ward.
Could what happened earlier this year be a precursor? The appropriations bill funding the Justice Department also includes NASA, and any increases have to be offset somewhere under congressional rules. When the last appropriations bill was considered in February, the House voted 228-203 to move $298 million from NASA to COPS. But that was a razor-thin vote, and the measure was introduced by none other than Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who since was forced to resign in a scandal over texting lewd photos,
It’s possible that policing, juvenile justice, and other programs that the Republicans want to cut can retain some of their funding but it will take a major lobbying effort in a economic and political climate that is very unfavorable toward boosts in federal spending.