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Law Enforcement Cautions Against Sequester’s Effect on Justice Grants

State and local law enforcement officials, including prosecutors, police and drug enforcement agents, are joining the chorus of advocates warning against the effects of the automatic federal spending cuts scheduled to go into effect in January.

While most law enforcement operations are funded through local taxpayer dollars, state and local officials caution that their public safety agencies also depend on Justice Department grant programs that are at risk of being cut by 8.2 percent under the 2011 debt limit law (PL 112-25). The cuts are part of the $109 billion in spending reductions for fiscal 2013 that would be ordered on Jan. 2, unless Congress acts in the lame-duck session that begins Nov. 13 to avert or delay what is known as sequestration.

A survey released by the National Criminal Justice Association and the Vera Institute of Justice earlier this month found that state and local law enforcement agencies already have been forced to make cutbacks in personnel and services as a result of declining federal aid, which the two organizations said is at “historically low levels.”

Federal funding for criminal justice grant programs has declined 43 percent over the past two years, the survey said. The cuts have affected programs that pay for drug interdiction programs, drug treatment for prisoners, criminal background checks, the incarceration of immigrants imprisoned on criminal charges and the hiring of police officers.

If the automatic spending cuts contained in the debt deal go into effect, it could “leave the federal-state-local public safety partnership virtually unfunded” by fiscal 2021, according to the survey, which polled 714 public safety agencies around the country. About three-quarters of the agencies reported reduced federal funding in recent years, while about half reported personnel reductions as a result of the cuts.

“It is often easy in Washington to throw around numbers, of budget cuts and programs lost. This survey shows the depth of the pain in communities, of law enforcement officers trying hard to stem the tide of crime with drastically reduced budgets,” Cabell Cropper, executive director of the National Criminal Justice Association, said in an e-mail. “The sequestration process will continue these cuts for the foreseeable future, reducing the federal government’s crucial role in spurring innovation, as well as testing and replicating evidence-based practices nationwide.”

Among the programs that would be cut in January if sequestration takes effect are the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, which was cut 34 percent in fiscal 2012, and the Community Oriented Policing Services hiring grants, which saw a 44 percent cut. Both programs are priorities for states and localities and have advocates on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

Fears of More Crime

Local law enforcement agencies worry that further cuts to Justice Department grants could result in less manpower on the streets at a time when the Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that violent crime is increasing nationwide. The agency reported Oct. 17 that violent crimes, including robberies and assaults, increased 17 percent in 2011, even though it said that crime “still remains at historically low levels.”

Fearing further cuts, local officials are applying pressure on their representatives in Congress to raise awareness about the kind of steps public safety agencies might have to take if spending reductions occur. Part of the challenge, they say, is that the public is unaware decisions in Washington could curtail local police and prosecutorial services.

“The majority of the people in this area do not understand that the loss of federal support means a loss of local enforcement,” said Fred C. Smith, the district attorney in Comanche County and Cotton County, Oklahoma. “I don’t think they know how much cities and counties and local agencies depend on federal support.”

Smith said he has already felt the impact of declining federal dollars for law enforcement, noting that he has had to disband a federally funded financial crimes unit within his office as a result of diminishing aid. Financial crimes, including fraud and the exploitation of the elderly, have “skyrocketed in southwest Oklahoma,” he said.

“I no longer have the ability to address that type of crime with the focus that I did before,” he said.

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