This month was supposed to be a landmark for the Justice Research and Statistics Association.
The group, which skipped its 2011 get-together of officials who run state crime Statistical Analysis Centers, co-sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), planned to resume the three-decades-old annual tradition in Louisville KY on October 18-19, 2012.
But would-be registrants instead found a terse announcement on the organization's website: “BJS and JRSA regret to announce that due to circumstances beyond our control, the October 2012 conference…. has been cancelled.”
The “circumstances,” however, were no mystery: the research group could not meet the federal government's increasingly tough standards for awarding discretionary spending on conferences and professional meetings.
Such stringent standards in fact, have curtailed what once seemed to be an endlessly- growing number of national, regional and local criminal justice training sessions and educational conferences run by organizations with Justice Department funding, or by the department itself.
The Justice Department, for example, has announced the suspension for next year of its annual National Institute of Justice conference in the Washington, D.C., area, which attracts more than 1,000 people each year.
Meanwhile, the National District Attorneys Association dropped a training session supported by the federal Office on Violence Against Women on domestic violence prosecutions that had anticipated attracting 500 or more conferees to Miami next month.
Another criminal justice group was forced to cancel a conference sponsored by the same agency, and the federal office dealing with registration of sex offenders cancelled a training conference in New Orleans on short notice, reportedly after some attendees had made nonrefundable airline reservations.
These and other examples have angered many in the justice field. But practitioners are reluctant to speak publicly for fear of alienating the very Washington officials who they hope will fund their sessions in the future.
They tell The Crime Report that, at best, they are being forced to spend much more time than they have in the past dealing with a rapidly-changing set of federal rules, and at worst are being compelled to cancel major meetings entirely.
The result, they say, is a less-informed group of criminal-justice practitioners around the nation.
The spate of meeting cancellations bothers Laurie Robinson, former Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs, now on the faculty of George Mason University in Virginia. It is Robinson's former agency that sponsored 2,500 conferences in the last fiscal year, including the now-suspended National Institute of Justice meeting.
She told The Crime Report: “When you look back over the last 40 years, training conferences have played a key role in federal leadership for state and local criminal justice. I'm a hard grader about guarding federal tax dollars, but I think it's overreaction when a longstanding institution like the annual NIJ conference is cancelled.
“If we're serious about advancing science and 'smart on crime' approaches, we have to bring together frontline practitioners for high quality education.”
A real but somewhat hidden problem is that organizations are being forced to spend lots of time planning and negotiating conferences, and not working on criminal justice issues.
Says the director of one national group, who did not want to be identified, “It is taking significantly increased staff time to get Justice Department permission to put on activities that are part of our grant deliverables.
“This takes away from time that should be for substantive activities of the grants. We used to be very good at managing staff time and producing good products on time and usually under budget. This is nearly impossible now.”
The government's overall budget woes are at the heart of the problem. With budget pressures unprecedented in recent memory, including a huge deficit and the threat of a “sequestration” process starting next year that could wipe out many federal programs, Justice officials argue that vigilance over conference costs is unavoidable.
But some of the concerns about overspending have proved exaggerated or untrue.
The “$16 muffin” report, a Justice Department inspector general's investigation published in September 2011, received national attention for its finding that one Justice agency supposedly had paid $16 apiece for muffins offered at a conference.
It turned out that report was erroneous. A Washington, D.C., hotel had mistakenly labeled the cost of an entire breakfast as a “muffin.”
The inspector general issued a correction, but that didn't erase the image of lavish wining and dining at conferences—an image the Justice Department argued was incorrect—and the report did point to other conference excesses. The report, for example, cited a $76-per-person lunch for attendees at an Office on Violence Against Women-sponsored event, and the fact that event planning services cost an estimated $600,000, or 37 percent of the $1.6 million total cost of 5 conferences that used external event planners.
Then there was the General Services Administration scandal that forced the resignation this year of several top officials at that major federal agency over its own inspector general's report on an $823,000 conference in Las Vegas that featured private parties for agency bigwigs in luxury hotel suites.
The White House Office of Management and Budget responded with a clampdown on
federally-sponsored conferences, one that seemed to hit the Justice Department's state and local anticrime funding program particularly hard.
Most department conferences are supported by agencies in the Office of Justice Programs.
As a part of the crackdown, the agency compiled its first count of how many meetings it helped fund in the course of a year—a list that grew to a surprisingly high total of about 2,500.
Despite all the reports of problematic meetings, officials report that 2,179 were approved and only 74 were cancelled or withdrawn in the year ending September 30. (The remainder hadn't been decided on by the fiscal year's end.)
A basic problem was that many groups that assumed federal funding for their meetings would be approved under longstanding practices were caught when the ground rules changed suddenly.
That is what happened to the Justice Research and Statistics Association. The group says it cut back on many costs in response to Justice Department requests, even eliminating microphones from meeting rooms, but was unable to satisfy federal officials. The cost of the conference, which was to be funded entirely by the federal government, started out at more than $230,000, but was ultimately reduced through negotiations to about $145,000 before it was cancelled. The attendance was expected to be 250,
When the mid-October conference in Kentucky still wasn't approved as Labor Day approached, the group decided that it couldn't put on a high-quality national conference with only six weeks of planning. So it pulled the plug.
As it happens, the Justice Department says one of the problems was that the organization hadn't met newly established federal “thresholds” limiting the proportion of a conference's budget that could be spent on planning it.
Association president Phillip Stevenson told The Crime Report, “We regret that the conference had to be cancelled, because there is no substitute for the quality of interactions that in-person conferences promote.
“For over 30 years, information shared among Statistical Analysis Centers (SACs) and between the SACs and BJS at these conferences has been invaluable to state criminal justice efforts by illustrating the role that quality data and research can play to inform and support criminal and juvenile justice evidence-based policy and practice.”
Timing also was a factor in cancellation of the National District Attorneys Association's domestic violence conference, which was scheduled for this fall in Miami.
On September 21, the association's director, Scott Burns, messaged participants it was “abundantly clear” that the Justice Department's new process for approving conferences could not be completed in time to market the training, prepare faculty, and allow participants to make cost-effective travel plans.
So the association called it off, saying “this process has become too stressful and reflects poorly on NDAA as faculty and attendees assume we have not prepared appropriately.”
The Justice Department responded on behalf of its Office for Violence against Women that all groups proposing conferences were told to get their plans in at least 90 days before the conference contract needs to be signed.
In this case, the department said: “the proposal was submitted with just 90 days before the event was scheduled to occur, not allowing the Department sufficient time to review the request. The Department’s conference spending review system is in place to ensure that taxpayer dollars are used efficiently in the provision of essential training and education for law enforcement professionals and grantee organizations.”
Saved $26 Million
More generally, Justice spokeswoman Allison Price said that after monitoring conference spending, Justice had saved over $26 million on conference spending in fiscal year 2011 compared to FY2010, while still conducting over 1,200 conference and training events serving over 104,000 federal and non-federal attendees.
Price added that Justice “has been sensitive to ensuring the reasonableness of conference planning costs and indirect costs,” one of the issues that doomed the Justice Research and Statistics Association meeting.
Since May 2012, conferences involving more than $100,000 in federal funds must be approved by the department's second-highest official.
These and other rules “are aimed at ensuring that taxpayer dollars are used efficiently in the provision of essential training and education for law enforcement professionals and grantee organizations,” Price said.
Justice Department officials and private organizations vow to resume important training conferences that have had to be dropped for now, even if the costs must be trimmed sharply. “We take our responsibilities for oversight of taxpayer dollars very seriously and we’ve found our continuing work to identify conference cost-savings very eye-opening,” says James H Burch, II, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs. “We’re thinking differently about how to effectively serve the state and local justice community in the most responsible manner.”
Both the justice and statistics group and the district attorneys hope to reschedule their conferences next year. The National Institute of Justice meeting hopes to be back on track by 2014.
In the meantime, the department is sponsoring many more webinars and video conferences to save money, contending that much valuable information can be conveyed that way even if conferees can't meet in person.
Said one official: “We are finding that we can do a lot of things more affordably.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and a Washington, DC-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.