Major forced federal budget cuts now on the horizon could have a major impact on state and local criminal justice operations, advocates told White House officials yesterday.
The White House invited leaders of criminal justice groups to talk about the anticipated problems as part of a series of sessions this week with various sectors to assess the prospects of less federal aid flowing from Washington, as a result of the so-called secuestration process.
About two dozen organizations met with staffers from the White House Domestic Policy Council, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Justice Department in a meeting that was not open to news media.
At issue now are $85 billion in spending reductions due to take effect on March 1 because Congress has not been able to agree on an overall fiscal plan for the federal government. Sequestration has been delayed once, but further postponements appear less likely with every passing day.
Jack Cutrone, president of the National Criminal Justice Association, a speaker at yesterday's session, forecasts "very significant problems" if the spending cuts hit.
He cited joint antidrug task forces that involve federal, state, and local agents. A combination of the loss of federal grants and furloughs of federal agents could result in the task forces shutting down in some states, Cutrone told The Crime Report.
The task forces often pursue major drug rings that local police forces are unable to penetrate.
Cutrone also noted that federal anticrime grants can be the only source of innovative justice practices in many states and localities that are unable to fund more than day-to-day operations of criminal justice agencies.
"Without federal grants, there may be no innovation and evaluation to support evidence-based practices" in fighting crime, he said.
Another speaker at the meeting was Lenore Anderson, founder and director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a statewide anticrime group. Anderson, a former prosecutor in San Francisco, said the coming budget cuts could have an "enormous impact."
"If local jurisdictions suffer even more cuts to federal programs, fewer crime victims will be abler to recover from crime, and the cycle of crime will worsen," she said. "The devastating reality of cuts on top of more cuts is that it ultimately forces local and state justice systems to revert to old practices, or stay stuck in the status quo when they know (that) new approaches work better."
Federal funding to help state and local anticrime programs has already suffered severe cuts in recent years.
Since most of these come through the U.S. Department of Justice, advocates worry that this part of the Justice budget will suffer most. That's because most federal criminal justice spending goes to personnel costs involving attorneys who handle federal cases, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the federal prison system. Employee layoffs often are the last resort in spending cuts.
Cutrone argued that one reason federal aid should not be reduced sharply is that crime has a major impact on the national economy in terms of costs to victims, as well as the cost of running the justice system.
Among other entities represented yesterday at the White House were the Vera Institute of Justice, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, Justice Fellowship, the Tribal Law & Policy Insitute, Fight Crime; Invest in Kids, the National Sheriffs' Association, the National Association of Counties, and the National Association of Attorneys General.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington DC editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.