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Budget Woes Halt Two DOJ Conferences

June 5, 2012 04:19:00 am

By Ted Gest

Two key Justice Department conferences are being cancelled for a year, both casualties of election-year concerns about federal spending.

The annual National Institute of Justice (NIJ) crime-research conference, a Washington, D.C., fixture for two decades, will not be held next year but will resume in 2014. The event features federal and state officials, academic criminologists, and criminal-justice practitioners discussing the latest research on crime control and prevention.

An annual Sex Offender Management and Accountability conference held since at least 2007 was cancelled for this year but will resume next year.

NIJ Director John Laub, who took responsibility for eliminating his agency's 2013 conference, stressed that this year's event will go on as scheduled June 18-20 in northern Virginia, and is expected to attract about 1,200 attendees at a cost of $589,000.

'Difficult Budget Situation'

Laub told The Crime Report that he suspended next year's session because of a "difficult budget situation" in Washington that is preventing increases in his agency's overall budget and necessitating a hiring freeze. The conference has grown to be such a large event that it takes nearly a year of planning, so a decision needed to be made now about next year, Laub said.

Laub vowed that NIJ would conduct some kind of educational activity on crime in June 2013, possibly the agency's annual Crime Mapping Conference, which usually is held in the fall, or one or more webinars on criminal-justice subjects.

"Conferences are essential to our mission," Laub said, noting that he has championed the expansion of "translational criminology" to explain advances in crime research to practitioners and the public.

Already, NIJ had cut the estimated $640,000 cost of the crime-research conference by eliminating food and beverages and reducing the number of speakers flown in to Washington.

In the past, the conference had offered attendees a free lunch at which top officials or experts such as Attorney General Eric Holder had spoken.

After the Justice Department Inspector General last year issued a report criticizing conference costs, including a mention--later determined to be erroneous--that Justice had paid $16 per muffin for breakfast attendees at one session, then-Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson banned federally-paid food at her agency's conferences, including NIJ.

The decision to make the crime-research conference biannual was not prompted by the controversy over the extravagant General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas that cost the agency's top officials their jobs and led to Congressional hearings, Laub said.

But he noted that all large federal conferences now are undergoing added scrutiny now that Congress is cutting much federal spending.

The NIJ conference started in the mid-1980's as a gathering of about 200 experts to discuss the agency's research and evaluation work, said NIJ communications director Jolene Hernon. It became an annual event in the early 1990s, attracting about 500 people.

About 1,200 came in 2011 after the Justice Department eliminated a registration fee.

Separately, the Justice Department's SMART office announced that it had rescheduled its 2012 National Symposium on Sex Offender Management and Accountability, originally planned for this summer,  to the spring of 2013 "due to unanticipated difficulties relating to new [Justice Department] conference approval processes."

DOJ Apology

The department apologized to people who already had made travel plans for the event, which had attracted more than 600 people in the past. This year's session was to have been held in early August in New Orleans.

SMART, the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking, was established under the 2006 federal Adam Walsh law that seeks to impose sex-offender registry requirements on states.

At a similar symposium in 2010, the Justice Department said it provided local representatives "with advanced training to assist in their work towards implementation of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), and offered nationally-recognized expert speakers and panel presentations in
various areas of sex offender management and accountability."

Among the speakers were SMART director Linda Baldwin, Mary Lou Leary, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, and, by video. John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted."

A media representative of the SMART office declined to answer messages about details of the cancellation or the cost of the conference.

The SMART allusion to "approval processes" referred to a requirement that an office in the Main Justice Department now must review and approve plans for any conference planned by a Justice Department agency.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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