Justice Erodes At Grass Roots As Federal Aid Wanes


Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice

Failure to resolve the looming budget crisis in Washington could devastate an already strained criminal justice system, suggests a new report from the National Criminal Justice Association and the Vera Institute of Justice.

The report, based on a national survey of government and private organizations that got 714 responses, found that U.S. Department of Justice funding to criminal justice agencies and nonprofit service providers has dropped by 43 per cent in the last two years under the impact of the recession. The survey’s sponsors don’t contend that the survey is scientifically representative, but that it illustrates funding issues being experienced on a state and local level.

About 14 per cent of the respondents said the amounts of their grants had been cut by more than half.

The report, issued yesterday, also noted widespread fears among agencies and groups on the front lines of the justice system, including police, that cuts in federal domestic discretionary spending which would kick in if Congress fails to agree on a deficit reduction plan before the end of the year could virtually end federal justice funding by 2021.

The survey made clear that federal funding for state and local anti-crime efforts is already “at a historically low level,”  the criminal justice association and Vera said.

More than three-quarters of the agencies and providers reported their level of federal aid has been steadily declining. Many have reduced their workforces, blaming the cuts in part on the funding decline.

Among the major programs involved are Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, Residential Substance Abuse Treatment for State Prisoners, various federal juvenile delinquency prevention initiatives, and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Survey respondents offered many examples of the effect of budget cuts.

Among them:

* Tucson’s police department has been forced to eliminate 194 sworn positions and 40.5 civilian positions, including dispatchers and crime scene investigators.

* Sarasota County, Florida, has eliminated three jobs at a center providing mental health assessments and case management for troubled youth. If the center itself must close down, police who now must wait 15 minutes to drop off detained youth would have to hold the young people themselves for up to six hours.

* A Kentucky law enforcement representative reported: “the drug and meth problem are at epidemic levels and the resources to combat the scourge are diminishing, which makes it difficult to fight and morale is very low. The finger holding the dike is getting worn down.”

* A Pennsylvania agency said that government budget cuts for various services push them “by default onto local police, further stressing police resources.” Funding for a drug task force was reduced, shutting down investigations for two months. “This permitted open drug sales to increase, increased retail thefts, burglary and other thefts, all impacting police operations,” the agency says.

The report was issued in advance of a debate expected in Washington after the November elections over a process known as “sequestration,” which will occur under a 2011 federal law unless Congress can agree on a comprehensive deficit reduction plan.

If sequestration goes into effect next year, which is considered likely, all domestic federal discretionary spending–including for criminal justice purposes–will be cut by 8.2 percent at first. Further reductions are required through fiscal year 2021.

Advocates for federal spending on criminal justice and other domestic issues are trying to convince members of Congress to take a “balanced” approach that does not require continued, large across-the-board cuts in federal aid.

Many argue that while the huge federal deficit makes some spending reductions inevitable, more attention should be given to “entitlements” like Medicare and Social Security payments.

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

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