House Panel Moves to Kill Trump DOJ Anticrime Program

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The House committee that oversees the U.S. Justice Department budget is calling for de-funding a major Trump administration anticrime program, Project Safe Neighborhoods.

The decision was among recommendations made Friday by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies for the budget year beginning October 1.

It was the first DOJ budget plan approved by the committee under Democratic leadership during the Trump administration. The panel now is headed by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY).

After his committee approved the budget by voice vote, Serrano said that among its provisions, “we invest in agencies and programs to address gun violence and to promote criminal justice reform.”

The committee provided no immediate explanation for its decision on Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), which is likely to be discussed when the full appropriations panel issues a report on its actions.

Sources familiar with the committee said that the project lacked support on the panel and that members believe that they are providing funds for a large number of anticrime programs.

In his opening statement to the panel last month, Attorney General William Barr mentioned the program only briefly, asking for $100 million “for Project Safe Neighborhoods grants to state and local law enforcement.”

Much of the discussion during the session related to Barr’s summary issued about two weeks earlier of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

PSN was not created by the Trump administration. It dates to the George W. Bush presidency, designed to have the nation’s 94 U.S. Attorneys work with state and local officials to reduce violent crime. The program was given little prominence during the Obama administration, but Trump’s first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, put a renewed emphasis on it.

The Trump administration’s budget request to Congress said that under PSN,
“grants will be awarded to local law enforcement agencies, outreach and prevention service providers, and researchers to support activities implementing local PSN anti-violence strategies. The PSN strategy focuses on both the eradication of illegal firearms and the interdiction of violent gang activity.”

In Chicago, PSN was credited with helping cut the homicide total in its early years, but like other antiviolence initiatives in the city, its effects “may have dissipated over time,” said an evaluation reported by the Chicago Policy Review.

Friday’s House committee vote does not mean that PSN is doomed. The appropriations bill still must be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee and the House itself, and then the Republican-controlled Senate, which may support it, although possibly at a reduced level.

The House spending bill would provide level funding or slight increases for most  DOJ anticrime programs, including Byrne Justice Assistance (Byrne JAG), Violence Against Women (VAWA) STOP, and grants under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

The measure would reduce Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding, setting a cap on spending from the Crime Victims Fund at $2.84 billion, of which $583 million would go to Office on Violence Against Women programs, $10 million for Office of Inspector General activities related to crime victims, and five percent for grants to Indian tribes to improve services for victims of crime.

That leaves a total for crime victim spending of $2.1 billion, a decrease of $585 million from last year’s $2.678 billion.

The committee said it proposes to expand resources for programs that reduce violent and gun crime, including full funding for the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System; more funds for U.S. Attorneys and the Marshals Service to address violent crime; $80 million in grants to States to improve their records used in background checks; $125 million under the STOP School Violence Act; $100 million for youth mentoring programs; and $20 million for police active shooter training.

Other committee recommendations include $190 million for COPS hiring by local police departments, up from $153 million; $142 million for DNA backlog reduction, up from $130 million in FY19; $16 million for the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the same as last year; $159 million for the Comprehensive Opioid Assistance Program (COAP), up from 157 million; $83 million for drug courts, up from $77 million; $35 million for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), up from $27 million; $79 million for the Second Chance Act, up from $60 million; and $100 million for victims of trafficking, up from $85 million.

The Senate is generally expected to be less generous in its appropriation numbers for the Justice Department.

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

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