A Congressional Blow to Science in Criminal Justice?


The House subcommittee that oversees U.S. Justice Department spending has taken the unusual step of proposing to eliminate line-item budgets for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)–the department’s main research and statistics agencies.

In a proposal that will go to the full House Appropriations Committee tomorrow, the subcommittee suggests that the two agencies be funded instead out of an existing “set-aside” of money in which three percent of Department of Justice (DOJ) grants are spent for training and technical assistance, and in the past, another two percent has been set aside for additional research and statistics work.

The proposal eliminates the former 2 percent limit on the set-aside for research and statistics. In any case, if the plan is eventually enacted into law, it could endanger the recent emphasis on using science to make criminal-justice policy by forcing DOJ leaders to take funds for NIJ and BJS from grants and other programs.

Insiders told The Crime Report that the subcommittee’s action, part of a long proposal for three huge federal agencies that was unveiled last week, caught the DOJ by surprise. There was no immediate comment from the department’s Office of Justice Programs, where the two agencies are housed.

By Washington standards, the two agencies now have tiny annual budgets: $41 million last year for BJS, and $36 million for NIJ within an overall allocation of $27 billion for the Justice Department.

That may be one reason why the subcommittee, now headed by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who took over from retired Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), believes that DOJ should be able to transfer funds internally to keep the agencies afloat.

In a press release announcing the overall budget proposal from his subcommittee, Culberson said, “This is a tough budget year, but this bill ensures our law enforcement officers have the resources they need to protect our lives and property. It also makes important scientific research a top priority. Breakthroughs in these areas are vital to America's future economic growth.”

His allusion to science probably was a reference to the National Science Foundation, which is funded under the same bill, and not to NIJ, which deals with scientific research commissioned by the Justice Department.

The proposal is expected to get widespread criticism from experts.

“The committee’s action reflects a stunning misunderstanding of the vital role of statistics and scientific research in combating crime and promoting justice,” said criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri at St. Louis, a former president of the American Society of Criminology.

“Make no mistake, eliminating the line item budgets for BJS and NIJ will gut the agencies. The set aside was meant to enhance their budgets, not replace them. During a period of national attention to police-community relations and prison reform, Congress should strengthen, not destroy, the nation’s leading sources of information and research on crime and justice.”

Criminologist John Laub of the University of Maryland, a former director of NIJ, said that “in the midst of one of the most important eras in crime and justice – record lows in crime rates, record high rates of incarceration, and unprecedented attention on police-civilian interactions – NIJ and BJS need to have robust budgets in order to ensure that the recent efforts to make criminal justice decision making more data-driven and evidence-based not only continue, but grow stronger. Now it is not the time to go backwards.”

Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute, speaking for the Crime and Justice Research Alliance, a consortium of over 5,000 criminal justice scholars, said, “The issue is not about how these research programs are funded but more about the level of funding. It's critical that criminal justice research receive funding on par with that in past appropriations bills, particularly given the prominence of issues of policing and criminal justice reform in society today.”

BJS has sometimes been faulted over the years for not reporting timely and complete data on crime and justice. Its defenders have cited its tiny budget and lack of power to compel state and local agencies to provide data. That issue has been raised by commentators who fault DOJ for not having definitive national data on police shootings,

The agency perhaps is best known for the National Crime Victimization Survey, which provides annual estimates of crime in the U.S. based on interviews with a representative sample of households. BJS has been working on an ambitious plan to break down its national estimates by regions. The survey is significant because it includes estimates of crimes not reported to law enforcement, which are not reflected in the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report.

NIJ’s reach has gone beyond traditional criminal-justice topics. For example, the agency’s website currently features research on “uncovering the lone wolf’s path to terrorism.”

The Barack Obama administration has emphasized greater use of science in criminal justice. As part of that effort, the White House successfully proposed in 2011 to create the set-aside for research and statistics. Former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, a key advocate for the change, told the American Society of Criminology at the time that the measure “would yield over $50 million for social science research, evaluation, and statistics. It would be unprecedented.”

The set-aside was meant to supplement NIJ and BJS’s small budgets, not to replace them. In fact, depending on how DOJ’s overall budget proposal fares, the set-aside could yield less than the total of the two agencies’ current budgets.

Observers cautioned that the House panel’s proposal came at the beginning of a long appropriations process, in which the Senate could disagree and insist on a continuation of the agency spending.

With tight budgets for the entire federal government and the Senate just this year shifting to Republican control, however, the House appropriators’ views on DOJ spending are likely to be significant.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes your comments.

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