Buried in the Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal to Congress: an agenda to reverse progress on criminal justice reform and slash the Department of Justice budget for grant programs by 20 percent. The budget framework – which is a pitch rather than an actual change to funding – conflates immigration and crime, calls for an end to police reform programs, and makes cuts to grants designed to help reduce incarceration and stem the opioid epidemic. In short, it’s a step backward for criminal justice reform.
The Trump administration continues to make false connections between immigration and crime, and Trump’s budget threatens grant funding for communities that don’t buy into the narrative. DOJ already has attempted to withhold funds from "sanctuary’ cities,” a move that’s been blocked by the courts. However, this budget goes a step further – and, as initially introduced in the FY 2018 budget – proposes to withhold DOJ and Department of Homeland Security grant funds for failure to share citizenship information with ICE and honor ICE detainers for people released from custody. (ICE detainers are requests to local law enforcement to continue holding undocumented immigrants who have been held for local crimes so that ICE may pick them up for deportation.) If enacted, communities across the country would face a painful choice – continue working real public safety issues and lose federal funds, or divert attention to immigration enforcement, which evidence shows has little to do with crime.
President Trump claims to be a “friend of the police,” yet his administration wants to make deep cuts in the programs that support law enforcement. His budget does away with the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a focal point for President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force. COPS worked with police departments across the country on best practices and much-needed reforms to improve police/community relations. At the same time, Trump’s budget eliminates DOJ’s Community Relations Service — not a grant program — which works in tandem with COPS to improve relationships between police and the communities they serve, especially minority communities. With these moves, much of the remaining federal support for police reform comes to an end.
The Trump administration also has done little to confront the opioid crisis, and less to help local law enforcement shift gears to halt the problem. This budget claims to improve White House drug policy-making by shifting the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s (ONDCP) $254 million High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Grant Program to DOJ’s Drug Enforcement Administration. However, preserving HIDTA, which funds law enforcement drug task forces, runs contrary to what the evidence shows is effective. Local police and sheriff’s departments need constructive assistance for dealing with opioids, including funding to equip officers with naloxone – to save lives of overdose victims – and support implementing diversion programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (L.E.A.D.) and the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI). Both encourage law enforcement to connect people with treatment and services needed to curb addiction in lieu of arrest.
This budget also runs counter to much of the criminal justice reform work supported by DOJ over the last several years by slashing innovative grant programs. For example, the budget:
- Eliminates the $25 million Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a major bipartisan effort to to reverse the growth of state prison populations.
- Zeroes out the $17.5 million Obama-era Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Grants, which spread use of evidence-based and best practices in neighborhood revitalization efforts across the country.
- Ends $8 million in funding for the Community-Based Violence Prevention Initiatives, another Obama-era grant program supporting public health and other community-based strategies to reduce violent crime.
- Eliminates $2.5 million for Smart Prosecution Grants, responsible for implementing evidence-based tools and strategies to aid prosecutorial decision-making.
- Ends $2.5 million in funding for Capital Litigation and Wrongful Conviction Review Improvement Grants—wrongful conviction represents a serious and under-examined problem within the criminal justice system.
The Brennan Center has previously brought attention to the need to tie DOJ’s grant programs to accomplishment of key policy objectives, like reducing unnecessary incarceration. Important, also, is to refocus some DOJ grant assistance on other priorities such as diversion for mentally ill and substance users, ending the criminalization of poverty, and increasing support for indigent defense. The Trump budget does none of these things. It’s a regressive proposal that kills programs designed to reduce incarceration and reduce crime.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.