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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
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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.