March 18, 2014, 3:41 p.m.; Corrected March 19, 2014 2:24 p.m.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama released his fiscal year 2015 budget request to Congress, which was immediately rejected by House Republicans. Speaker Boehner called it the “most irresponsible budget yet.” Just as predictably, pundits followed by grousing that the budget wasn’t worth the paper it’s printed on: They argue it’s a political statement with no chance of getting passed into law, not a realistic policy document.
But while much of the president’s budget may fall by the wayside, there are portions that could have a good chance of passage into law. Bipartisan political consensus isn’t dead on all issues. Take criminal justice reform. There, both parties are moving in the same direction. In fact, last week’s CPAC conference — arguably the year’s most important platform for conservative legislators — devoted an entire panel to criminal justice reform. On those issues, the budget can provide a blueprint.
That’s why the portion of the White House’s budget dealing with criminal justice funding is significant. Updating the way taxpayer dollars are sent to law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies nationwide can do a great deal to modernize our outdated criminal justice system. In particular, Success-Oriented Funding, in which grant funding is conditioned on achievement of clear, data-based goals, can better align criminal justice policy with the goals of reducing crime and unnecessary incarceration.
Members on both sides of the aisle are pushing for criminal justice funding reform. As House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., said last month, “[Criminal justice] grant programs are not always designed or administered as efficiently as they should be – which means that less money is actually sent to help the boots on the ground.” During that same hearing, Congressman Robert C. Scott, D-Va., expressed similar concern about the importance of successful returns on our investments in grant dollars.
Right now, too much federal money for criminal justice goes through formula grants — essentially, blind, guaranteed funding that fails to assess how effectively the money will be used. President Obama’s budget indicates he agrees with House Republicans that this needs to change. Funding reforms are supported by progressive and conservative groups, as well as law enforcement.
The president’s budget addresses this problem, by providing a needed boost to the types of competitive, evidence-based grant programs that make better use of taxpayer dollars. That includes a crucial $24 million increase for indigent defense and legal aid initiatives, which will help address the faltering public defense system that too often leaves poor defendants without access to counsel. It also allocates more money for substance abuse treatment programs, and provides a $47 million increase for Second Chance programs that help former felons reintegrate into society after being release from prison, a vital means of slowing the growth of prison populations.
The budget also improves the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance (JAG) grant, the largest federal grant for criminal justice. JAG provides money to every state and thousands of localities. The budget calls for an additional $45 million to be funded through competitive grants that are conditioned on potential JAG recipients making a good case for how they’ll use the money. The budget also creates a $15 million incentive grant program, essentially bonus money that states and localities can compete for.