Will GOP Give Obama What He Wants for Criminal Justice?


The White House would like to see the U.S. Justice Department get a small budget increase for the year starting October 1, but it remains to be seen whether a Republican-dominated Congress will give President Barack Obama what he wants.

By Washington, D.C., standards, Justice is a medium-sized federal agency, with nearly $29 billion to spend in the budget the President sent to Capitol Hill yesterday.

Some major agencies like the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would have to take cuts under the President’s plan, while the Drug Enforcement Administration would get an increase.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons would continue to take a larger share of the Justice Department spending pie, increasing from $6.8 to $7.2 billion in the next fiscal year under Obama’s proposal. Alarmed at unrelenting budget growth that threatens to prevent other DOJ programs from getting the funds they need, Congress last year created a task force named for the late prison reformer Charles Colson to study ways of keeping costs down. That panel is due to issue a report by early next year.

The biggest chunk of money for state and local anticrime projects, called the Byrne program, would increase slightly, from $376 million to $388 million, but the White House includes so many “carve outs” for specific programs that the actual amount going to states and localities would drop from $333 million to $319.5 million.

Obama would like the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to get an increase for hiring local police officers, from $180 million to $209.5 million, plus a new $5 million incentive grant program to improve diversity in law enforcement. The hiring program, created during the high-crime era of the Clinton administration, has survived for two decades, but Republicans in Congress have been less enthusiastic than have Democrats about funding it.

The COPS office has had much more public attention since the killing of Michael Brown last summer in Ferguson, Mo., as it has taken the lead in working on police reforms in the St. Louis suburbs.

Under Obama’s plan, the DOJ would get continued funding for grants for programs supported by scientific evidence, such as Smart Policing, Smart Probation, and a new $30 million program called Smart on Juvenile Justice.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics would get a big increase, from about $41 million to $61 million. Much of this would be for the ongoing effort to produce crime victimization statistics by locality rather than the historic practice of issuing one national estimate of crime. Another new proposal is for research on “domestic radicalization.” The National Institute of Justice also would get a significant increase, from $36 million to $52.2 million.

Justice Reinvestment, the project aimed at helping states stabilize their corrections populations, could get a boost from $28 million to $45 million. Grants under the Second Chance Act to help prisoners re-enter society successfully would rise from $68 million to $75 million.

Congress this year allowed $2.36 billion in spending from the Victims of Crime Act fund, which is composed of fines paid in federal courts. The Obama administration proposes to bring this annual expenditure down to $1 billion.

Funds to aid state programs to fight juvenile crime, which have suffered large cuts in recent years, could get an increase under the Obama budget. Yet it is questionable whether Congress will agree to this. Example: Obama wants to restore a Juvenile Accountability Block Grant Program at a cost of $28 million, but Congress killed the effort two years ago, and there is no immediate indication that legislators are inclined to restore it.

Indeed, a change of political parties and personalities this year may make it more difficult for some Justice Department accounts to grow any larger.

Democrats generally have been more amenable than Republicans to government spending, but the Senate committee overseeing DOJ spending now is controlled by Republicans and chaired by Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama rather than Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.

On the House side, which remains in Republican hands, the reins passed from Rep. Frank Wolf, representing some of the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Rep. John Culberson of Texas, who represents the Houston area, home of the Johnson Space Flight Center. That could be significant because Congress puts the NASA budget in the hands of the same committee that handles the Justice Department.

Culberson calls himself a “tireless advocate for law enforcement and NASA,” but it is not yet apparent whether he will show the same interest in the details of Justice Department spending as did his predecessor, Frank Wolf. On his website, Culberson says that the “lawlessness on the border requires immediate action.”

One notable aspect of the Obama budget was that it was submitted on time after being proposed later in the winter or spring the past few years. It’s too early to say, but that might give Congress sufficient time to review it in detail before the new spending year starts in October. In recent years, many federal budgets have been handled via an omnibus bill known as a continuing resolution that has not allowed for each house of Congress to spend much time on individual agencies’ spending plans.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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