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Better Way to Keep Track of Taxpayer Dollars

At this time of national belt-tightening, it’s important that federal justice grant money goes toward achieving clear goals.

February 3, 2014

Cross-posted from The Hill

Amid larger discus­sions of govern­ment spend­ing surround­ing the debt ceil­ing, farm bill, and Murray-Ryan budget comprom­ise, it’s easy to forget that Congress’ appro­pri­ation of funds for agen­cies and programs is only the begin­ning.  Once agen­cies receive federal funds, they have a respons­ib­il­ity to taxpay­ers to ensure the money is spent effi­ciently and alloc­ated towards achieve­ment of clear goals – espe­cially at this time of national belt-tight­en­ing.

That’s why the testi­mony of Justice Depart­ment Inspector General Michael Horow­itz last week is so troub­ling.  Before the House Judi­ciary Commit­tee, Horow­itz said his office’s audits had uncovered at least $100 million of Justice Depart­ment funds that were ques­tion­ably spent.  

The Justice Depart­ment has awar­ded approx­im­ately $17 billion in grants to govern­mental and nongov­ern­mental recip­i­ents over the past five years. But effect­ive monit­or­ing of how these funds are spent does not exist.  Test­i­fied Horow­itz, “Unless there is an OIG audit or invest­ig­a­tion, or the grant­ing agency dedic­ates resources to collect and analyze account­ing inform­a­tion from a recip­i­ent, the govern­ment and taxpay­ers are virtu­ally in the dark regard­ing how grant funds were actu­ally used.”

This is a fright­en­ing state­ment about the Justice Depart­ment’s abil­ity to manage the billions of dollars it sends across the coun­try each year. It’s clear why the Inspector Gener­al’s Office has long considered grant manage­ment to be one of DOJ’s top chal­lenges.

Judi­ciary Chair­man Bob Good­latte (R-Va.) provided a national context for DOJ’s fail­ure to effect­ively manage its grant fund­ing.

“Amer­ica contin­ues to face diffi­cult fiscal times,” he said. “Law enforce­ment agen­cies are not immune from this.  There is little doubt that the finan­cial support the federal govern­ment provides to state and local law enforce­ment agen­cies through Byrne JAG and other grants is often­times crit­ical.  As with many other aspects of govern­ment, these 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.”

Good­latte is correct that all too often, federal crim­inal justice funds flow on auto­pi­lot. As a result, good policies and programs are under­fun­ded, while grant recip­i­ents often have an incent­ive to carry out unwise policies.

The Byrne JAG program that he refers to is a prime example.  The largest federal grant for crim­inal justice, amount­ing to hundreds of millions of dollars a year and direc­ted toward all fifty states and thou­sands of local­it­ies across the coun­try, it suffers from inef­fect­ive – and often coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive – meas­ure­ment of how funds are spent.

When asking JAG grant recip­i­ents for inform­a­tion on how the money is spent, DOJ often focuses on volume-based stat­ist­ics – like how many people were arres­ted – at the expense of mean­ing­ful, results-based stat­ist­ics, like whether or not the viol­ent crime rate dropped.  The result is a signal to local law enforce­ment who receive the money that their goal should be to arrest as many people as possible, a prac­tice that does not markedly improve public safety. DOJ lacks tools to meas­ure innov­at­ive programs, like community poli­cing, with proven records of redu­cing crime but that are diffi­cult to meas­ure with simplistic volume-based stat­ist­ics.

Byrne funds for law enforce­ment are only one example of how DOJ inef­fect­ively meas­ures grant spend­ing.  Byrne funds also flow to prosec­utors and public defend­ers, reentry programs, and more.  And beyond JAG, DOJ has more than $16 billion of other spend­ing that could bene­fit from more effect­ive and trans­par­ent distri­bu­tion.

The solu­tion is for DOJ to adopt a “Success-Oriented Fund­ing” model.  The concept is simple: fund what works, dump what does­n’t.  And in order to do so, meas­ure and monitor where the money goes and how it’s spent. All the while, make that spend­ing inform­a­tion public­ally avail­able on an online data­base, so that taxpay­ers can monitor where there money is going. This will incentiv­ize policies that produce success, and orient thou­sands of state and local grant recip­i­ents toward what should be our coun­try’s biggest crim­inal justice goal: reduce crime while also redu­cing an expens­ive and over-punit­ive mass incar­cer­a­tion system.

The admin­is­tra­tion has already begun to imple­ment this type of fund­ing model – which applies the best of proven private sector prac­tice to public dollars – in educa­tion and health care. Crim­inal justice, an area where the Pres­id­ent and Attor­ney General Holder, as well as both Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans in Congress have called for reform, is the smart next step.