‘Justice Reinvestment’ Holds Its Own Against Trump

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Photo by Jamelle Bouie via Flickr

For nearly a decade, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has supported a concept known as “justice reinvestment,” which encourages states to manage their prison populations better and invest the money that is saved in programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

DOJ has recently been devoting about $25 million annually to the program, a minuscule sum in a cabinet department that has more than $30 billion to spend each year, but still enough to fund work in several states. Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota and Georgia passed legislation this year based on justice reinvestment principles, the Justice Department says.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project also pursues justice reinvestment in conjunction with the Justice Department. Pew declines to say how much it spends, but it probably is much less than the federal appropriation. The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Crime and Justice Institute help run the program. (An earlier version of this story cited the Vera Institute of Justice, which no longer is a contractor.)

In February, the Trump administration unexpectedly asked Congress to end federal involvement in justice reinvestment.

The White House said it would rather spend the money directly fighting violent crime and on projects under the federal Second Chance Act that help released inmates reenter society successfully.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t speak about the program directly, but DOJ watchers noted that given his tough-on-crime rhetoric and his opposition to bills that would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences, he would be unlikely to have much enthusiasm about a project that aims to reduce state prison populations.

The Trump plan failed its first test on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, chairman John Culberson (R-TX) of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department budget released his spending plan for the year starting Oct. 1. It did not seek to kill the program as Trump sought, but rather proposed to increase annual funding for justice reinvestment to $30 million.

It is important to note that the initial DOJ spending proposal, which will be considered on Wednesday by the full subcommittee, has a long way to go through the legislative process in both the House and Senate and could be subject to change.

Still, support of justice reinvestment by a conservative committee chairman should go a long way toward keeping the program intact, given that most Democrats and many Republicans have backed it in the past.

Recently, 68 House members supported continued funding for justice reinvestment. They asserted that states had saved a combined total of more than $1.1 billion under the the program, and that crime has continued dropping in most of the states involved. Sixteen senators signed a similar letter.

Pew reports that 34 states have changed their laws on sentencing or prisons since 2007 under the justice reinvestment initiative. Pew says that “reforms prioritize the use of prison for serious and violent offenses while expanding alternatives to imprisonment for those who can be supervised more effectively and at less expense in the community.”

Asked before Tuesday’s subcommittee proposal about the Trump administration call to end federal backing for justice reinvestment, Pew’s Adam Gelb told The Crime Report that, “The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress for the last 8 years, and that’s been because state leaders from both parties have made clear to their federal representatives that consensus-driven policy based on the best available data can deliver a better public safety return on investment.

“We anticipate Congress will continue funding the Justice Reinvestment Initiative as states continue to deliver results.”

Overall, the House subcommittee budget proposal would give an increase to DOJ of nearly $800 million. Among major items included, according to the subcommittee and to the National Criminal Justice Association, are:

  • An additional 100 immigration judge teams, which along with 100 more judicial teams being added this year “should drastically reduce the immigration case backlog,” the subcommittee said.
  • For the Drug Enforcement Administration, an additional $130 million to help national opioid enforcement efforts and targeting major drug trafficking organizations.
  • An increase of $23 million for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help cut violent crime, among other uses.
  • An $81 million budget reduction for the FBI, which would get $9.3 billion overall. The cut was attributed to lower “construction funding.”
  • $2.9 billion for state and local law enforcement assistance grant programs including $493 million for Violence Against Women Act programs, $442 million for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, $255 million for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, $48 million for Reduce Sexual Assault Kits Backlog grants, $100 million for Anti-Human Trafficking grants, $380 million for Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act grants.
  • Project Safe Neighborhoods, an anticrime program that is a high priority of the Trump administration, would get $50 million, up from $20 million.
  • The new STOP School Violence Act would be funded at $100 million, primarily for grants to states for violence prevention training for teachers and students, development of anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence, development of school threat assessment and intervention teams, security assessments, and coordination with local law enforcement. Funds in this program previously were used for academic research, which the Trump administration opposed.
  • Hiring of community police officers under the COPS program would be reduced from $150 million to $91 million.

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

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