On December 27 President Bush signed the 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, a $555 billion domestic spending package that included short-term funding for US troops and an estimated $10 billion in pork-barrel projects. The raft of earmarks prompted Bush to say he was “disappointed” by Congress’s inability to “rein in government spending.”
But the bill did include major funding cuts, including, notably, a 67 percent reduction in appropriations (from $520 million to $170 million) for the Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. According to the Justice Department, the program “allows states and local governments to support a broad range of activities to prevent and control crime and to improve the criminal justice system.”
How will this cut affect states’ and municipalities’ ability to protect public safety? That’s a supremely wonky (and supremely politicized) question–but it’s a good one, I think.
Walter Phillips Jr., chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, offered a tentative answer today. Pennsylvania received $11.7 million in Byrne JAG funds in 2007; the two-thirds reduction for 2008 drops that number to $3.9 million. “Let there be no mistake,” Phillips warned, “this cut in federal funding will hamper justice improvements and innovations which ultimately help to protect our citizens.”
Wisconsin, too, has weighed in. The state’s Office of Justice Assistance (which is charged with disbursing federal justice and homeland security grant funds) says it uses Byrne JAG funds to “support the operations of multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, prosecutors, help crime victims and reduce racial disparities in Wisconsin’s justice system”; it is facing a $4.1 million cut, from $6.48 million to $2.37 million. David Steingraber, who directs Wisconsin’s Office of Justice Assistance and serves as president of the National Criminal Justice Association, said recently that “communities everywhere” will suffer from the cuts. “Congress has just made the job of every police officer in this country more difficult,” he adds.
I’ve got a related (admittedly wonky, politicized) question, one that will probably betray my ignorance on the subject. I ask it because I don’t know enough about how and under what conditions JAG funding is disbursed, and because I haven’t seen much commentary on this subject since the bill was signed into law. If these grants are primarily being applied to help police “toughen” up on crime and, say, bolster the victims’ rights lobby, then I’d conclude that cutting them by two-thirds might not be such a terrible idea. But if they’re expressly used to support the kind of reform efforts youth advocates and criminal defenders champion–and if increased funding could relieve, or work in tandem with, the nonprofit organizations that have stepped up in the absence of federal leadership–then I’d have a very different opinion on the matter.
So, how will this cut affect efforts at reform?