Obama Seeks Criminal Justice Boost In Tight Spending Year


President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the Fiscal Year 2015 budget at Powell Elementary School in Washington

The U.S. Justice Department emphasized criminal justice reform as among the “key highlights” in President Obama’s proposed federal budget for the fiscal year starting October 1, although the $173 million for such projects is only a tiny fraction of the department’s overall $27.4 billion spending plan.

But Capitol Hill budget battles in an election year mean that none of the proposals is a sure winner.

The two largest Justice Department components continue to be the FBI, which would get more than $9 billion, and the Bureau of Prisons, which would get $8.4 billion. Those big-ticket items, plus salaries for all the lawyers who handle the department’s criminal and civil caseload, explain why criminal justice projects get so little.

Although the President so far has failed to win significant gun control legislation in Congress, his budget proposal included a “Now is the Time” initiative, which the Justice Department called a “comprehensive plan to reduce gun violence and save lives.” This would include $182 million to “sustain” gun programs started this year.

The budget request includes $35 million in new money to help ensure that people not eligible to buy or possess guns are prevented from doing so. Part of the money is $13 million for the FBI to maintain improvements to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), dealing with the increasing number of firearm background checks.

The Obama budget would provide $147 million in other gun-related areas, including $55 million as incentives to states to provide criminal history and mental health records to the NICS; $75 million to continue providing research and pilot programs to increase school safety personnel and to determine the effectiveness of school safety measures, and $2 million to encourage the development of innovative gun safety technology.

Other funding would help Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which includes “diversion courts and other alternatives to incarceration for low-level drug offenders,” and projects helping former prisoners return successfully to society.
The amounts being sought for these efforts are small in comparison to the huge DOJ budget, however. They include $15 million for U.S. Attorneys around the nation for “smart on crime” activities, $15 million to expand the federal residential drug abuse program, and $414 million to expand a similar program at the state and local level.
The Second Chance Act grant program to help ex-offenders would get an increase to $115 million from the current $68 million.
A few other criminal-justice spending requests from the White House, as compiled by the National Criminal Justice Association:
  • State and local anticrime projects under the Byrne JAG formula program would get $319 million, down from $344 million this year.
  • Specialty courts like drug, mental health, and veterans treatment courts, would get $44 million, down from $53 million this year.
  • DNA analysis grant programs would get $100 million, down from $125 million, although $35 million is proposed separately in new money for reducing rape kit backlogs.
  • COPS hiring under the community oriented policing program, $222 million, up from $180 million in FY14.
  • Programs to fight juvenile crime, which have taken big hits in recent years, would remain steady next year. The administration is trying to restore a “Juvenile Accountability Block Grant” program that Congress killed this year.
  • National Institute of Justice, the DOJ research agency, would get $48 million, up from $40 million.
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics would get $55 million, up from $45 million.

There is no guarantee that Congress will actually fund any particular program in this list. A budget deal this year proved to be a mixed bag for the Justice Department. Several projects got funding increases, but juvenile justice suffered and even after the Newtown, CT school massacre, funding increases to improve background checks for gun purchases were relatively small.

Still, one lobbyist who follows the gun issue closely said that two consecutive years of increased funding for background checks, if Congress approves it, would be “a huge improvement and would allow the states to tackle projects in a more holistic way than they have been able to in the past.”

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