Unusually quick federal appropriations action by Congress for the Justice Department this year indicates so far that most spending on major anticrime programs will continue at current levels or above.
The result might be seen as surprising, given Tea Party efforts to cut federal spending.
On the other hand, federal aid for criminal justice projects took big cuts several years ago; so the budget successes of 2014 must be viewed in the context of less spending than in the first decade of the 21st century.
The House has completed action on a Justice Department spending plan for the year starting October 1, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has finished its version of the bill.
The Senate is expected to consider the measure before the July 4 recess, possibly this week. Amendments still are possible, and the two Houses must agree on final figures, but the general picture is clear.
As compiled by the National Criminal Justice Association, the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program for states and localities, which pays for a broad array of anticrime work, got $358 million from the House and $340 million from the Senate committee. The current year’s budget is $344 million.
The COPS program to help local police departments is in line to get more than its current $214 million. The House voted for $233 million and the Senate committee for $224 million. This is unusually high support because the Republican-dominated House in past years has been reluctant to provide much funding for a police-assistance program that was launched by the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s.
Reversing a cut proposed by committee members, the House added a $110 million measure that would hire about 1,000 police officers. The additional funds were championed by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA), a former sheriff, who declared, “Our local law enforcement is this nation's first line of defense.”
Violence Against Women programs also seem to be in line for a small increase. The House appropriated $433 million and the Senate committee called for $430 million, compared with a current budget of $417 million.
Juvenile Justice Loses Traction
One category not doing particularly well is federal aid for juvenile justice.
The current budget is $255 million, which is much less than Congress voted during many previous sessions. This time around, the House opted for $233 million, and the Senate committee came in at $258 million. Unlike some other criminal justice areas, juvenile justice does not enjoy a long list of major supporters on Capitol Hill.
When allocating funds for the spending year now under way, Congress voted to kill one segment of juvenile justice aid, the so-called juvenile accountability block grant program. The Barack Obama administration tried to revive it, but has had no luck so far this year.
The Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group, says the funds have been used to “strengthen juvenile court services, such as behavioral health screening and assessment for court-involved youth and alternatives to detention.”
Federal aid to states to improve the system of checking prospective gun buyers’ background would get a boost, although the total remains small. The current federal budget is $59 million, which the Senate would maintain as is, and the House would raise to $79 million.
One problem that would get special attention from Congress this year is the backlog in crime lab analysis of “rape kits” in many states, which has meant that potentially significant evidence in rape cases must wait months or even years to be checked. Both the full House and the Senate committee have voted to set up a new $41 million fund to help speed the test results.
One issue yet to be resolved involves the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Several states face losing federal aid because they didn’t promise by May 15 that they could fulfill requirements of the 2003 law to strengthen protections for inmates.
The Senate committee would give states another year to comply; if the full Senate approves, the House would have to approve as well for the delay to go into effect.
Congress seems likely to continue giving the federal Bureau of Prisons about $7 billion next year, about one quarter of the entire Justice Department budget.
The Senate committee expressed concern about this spending level, noting that, “from fiscal year 2000 to fiscal year 2013 the cost of incarceration rose from approximately $22,000 per inmate to more than $29,000 per inmate, an increase of 35.6 percent. These numbers suggest that the BOP could eventually consume an even greater share of the Department's overall budget.”
The FBI typically gets favorable treatment from Congress and this year is no exception. The Senate committee would give the bureau about $8.3 billion compared with nearly $8.25 billion currently.
Senators urged the bureau “to move forward in a timely and transparent way with the full consolidation of FBI Headquarters so that employees currently located at the J. Edgar Hoover building may be co-located with
their colleagues who are currently spread out across 20 leased offices in the region.”
The nearly 40-year-old Hoover building in downtown Washington, D.C., is too small and outdated to meet the near the bureau’s needs, and the federal government is seeking a new location for the FBI.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.