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Biden’s Budget Steps up Spending for Criminal Justice Reform

The administration is leveraging Justice Department grants to state and local governments to try to improve outcomes.

  • Michael Crowley
June 25, 2021

Expect­a­tions are high for Pres­id­ent Biden to prior­it­ize crim­inal justice reform. Just a few weeks ago, his fiscal year 2022 budget was released, and it includes Justice Depart­ment fund­ing for state and local grant programs.

Our analysis has found some $1.3 billion earmarked for reform-related grants, which are one of the main tools the federal govern­ment has for spur­ring posit­ive change at the state and local levels. The number repres­ents a 78 percent increase from the previ­ous year.

Community Viol­ence Inter­ven­tion and police hiring

Many justice reformers point out that there are effect­ive non-law enforce­ment strategies for redu­cing viol­ence. Biden’s budget goes big on one such set of strategies, includ­ing $100 million in new Community Viol­ence Inter­ven­tion initi­at­ive grant funds within DOJ and $100 million within the Centers for Disease Preven­tion and Control (CDC).

This $200 million is augmen­ted by an unpre­ced­en­ted $5 billion reques­ted as part of the pres­id­ent’s infra­struc­ture pack­age to put Amer­ic­ans back to work. Acting Assist­ant Attor­ney General Amy Solomon high­lighted the admin­is­tra­tion’s goal to invest in “non-law enforce­ment street outreach” programs, which rely on community members to resolve disputes and change norms around the use of viol­ence.

DOJ also said it will support “forced deterrence,” a community outreach strategy that includes services plus the threat of arrest. Although not strictly a “non-law enforce­ment approach,” it does repres­ent a turn­about from past DOJ grants that focused primar­ily on tradi­tional crim­inal justice strategies to combat crime and viol­ence.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion is not deem­phas­iz­ing police. In fact, it’s request­ing $388 million for a hiring program run out of the Office of Community Oriented Poli­cing Services (COPS Office). That’s double the fund­ing of the prior year, enough for about 2,500 new officers.

With some cities reevalu­at­ing police budgets and use of police, some may ques­tion whether addi­tional police hiring is needed. But DOJ plans to prior­it­ize COPS Hiring Grant awards to communit­ies imple­ment­ing the Community Viol­ence Inter­ven­tion initi­at­ive.

Police-focused reforms

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion also is tack­ling needed police reform. Another new prior­ity for the COPS Hiring Grants will be increas­ing diversity in law enforce­ment so agen­cies better mirror the communit­ies they serve. Import­antly, the budget includes $20 million in new fund­ing for police train­ing on racial profil­ing, de-escal­a­tion, and the duty to inter­vene, a prior­ity of the George Floyd Justice in Poli­cing Act.

The budget also includes $20 million to restore COPS Collab­or­at­ive Reform, which was defun­ded by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. This program employs a volun­tary approach with law enforce­ment agen­cies on issues such as excess­ive police shoot­ings and viol­ence. The strategy is an adjunct to the “patterns and prac­tice” invest­ig­a­tions carried out by DOJ’s Civil Rights Divi­sion, which also have been restored by the Biden admin­is­tra­tion.

Diver­sion and incar­cer­a­tion altern­at­ives

Clem­ency author­ity remains among the pres­id­ency’s most power­ful tool for address­ing unne­ces­sary incar­cer­a­tion, and Biden reportedly plans to begin exer­cising it soon to address racial inequit­ies and other systemic issues in the federal crim­inal justice system. But most incar­cer­a­tion is at the state and local level, and the admin­is­tra­tion also is seek­ing $35 million for the Justice Rein­vest­ment Initi­at­ive, which has reduced state prison popu­la­tions. This program has worked with at least 35 states since 2007 and has been cred­ited with an 11 percent drop in state incar­cer­a­tion. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion had attemp­ted to defund the initi­at­ive, appear­ing unenthu­si­astic about redu­cing incar­cer­a­tion. Biden’s budget also makes avail­able $100 million in new grant fund­ing to reduce juven­ile incar­cer­a­tion, a major new initi­at­ive.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion is asking for $28 million for restor­at­ive justice programs, includ­ing $25 million in new fund­ing for grants to support restor­at­ive justice responses to domestic viol­ence, dating viol­ence, sexual assault, and stalk­ing. The admin­is­tra­tion also is request­ing $164 million, an increase of $17 million, for court-based diver­sion programs, includ­ing grants for Drug Courts ($95 million), Mental Health Courts and Collab­or­a­tions ($40 million), Veter­ans Treat­ment Courts ($25 million), and a new grant focused on Family-Based Altern­at­ive Senten­cing ($3.5 million).

Restor­at­ive justice and court-based diver­sion programs are import­ant, but strategies focused on altern­at­ives to arrest are just as valu­able. DOJ plans to support one such program, Law Enforce­ment Assisted Diver­sion, with its Compre­hens­ive Opioid Abuse Program. And the admin­is­tra­tion’s plans for this $190 million program (a $5 million increase) include a major emphasis on diver­sion and treat­ment for those accused of drug use crimes.

Improv­ing defense and outcomes for the justice-involved

The need for improved indi­gent defense remains one of the crim­inal justice system’s lead­ing chal­lenges. The Biden admin­is­tra­tion has made a signi­fic­ant down payment on improv­ing indi­gent defense and wrong­ful convic­tion review with $77 million in grants, includ­ing $68 million in new fund­ing for improv­ing juven­ile defense ($40 million), a new Public Defender Improve­ment Grant ($25 million), and capital case and wrong­ful convic­tion review grants ($12 million).

The admin­is­tra­tion recog­nizes the need for improved trans­ition support for people getting out of prison and is request­ing $125 million for Second Chance Act (Reentry) grants, an increase of $25 million.

About half of those in state pris­ons and local jails suffer from substance use disorder. Improv­ing outcomes for these people depends on appro­pri­ate treat­ment. The budget includes $35 million for resid­en­tial substance abuse treat­ment (RSAT) grants for state correc­tional facil­it­ies. Some of the fund­ing from the $190 million Compre­hens­ive Opioid Abuse grants (discussed above) also likely will flow to substance use treat­ment in correc­tional settings.

Congress may want to consider addi­tional prior­it­ies

Budgets commu­nic­ate pres­id­en­tial prior­it­ies. With a public increas­ingly concerned about reform­ing a dysfunc­tional crim­inal justice system, the pres­id­ent’s FY 2022 budget request for DOJ’s state and local grant programs will help improve the fair­ness of the system, reduce incar­cer­a­tion, and improve outcomes. At the same time, more can be done.

Congress also may want to consider some addi­tional prior­it­ies. For example, the George Floyd Justice in Poli­cing Act includes $900 million in new DOJ grants focused on police account­ab­il­ity, but congres­sional appro­pri­at­ors do not need to wait for passage of this legis­la­tion to provide fund­ing for the new grants. Congress also may want to consider restruc­tur­ing some DOJ grant programs to focus addi­tional resources on crim­inal justice reform. A recent proposal suggests an approach that can be scaled. And one program worth revis­ing is the $356 million Byrne Justice Assist­ance Grant, a formula grant that all states and many communit­ies auto­mat­ic­ally qual­ify for with no strings attached. Some­thing else worth consid­er­ing, too, is going much bigger on grant assist­ance to help reduce incar­cer­a­tion.