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Big Down Payment on State and Local Criminal Justice Reform Efforts

This week President Obama proposed the largest commitment of federal funds in a generation to spur state and local criminal justice reform. Though its prospects are uncertain, it comes at the right time.

  • Michael Crowley
February 12, 2016

This week President Obama proposed the largest commitment of federal funds in a generation to spur state and local criminal justice reform. The 21st Century Justice Initiative would spend $5 billion over 10 years on efforts such as reducing unnecessary incarceration, improving policing, and re-entry services for those who have served their time.

The news comes amid a strong bipartisan push for change. The last time such a widespread investment occurred was more than two decades ago when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was passed. That legislation authorized billions of dollars in assistance to states and localities for “tough on crime” measures, of which $2.7 billion was spent on prisons and jails. But in our zeal to combat crime, we have incarcerated far too many.

The Obama administration is well aware of the need for reform and this new proposal would spend substantial federal resources once again to incentivize changes in state and local crime policy. If enacted by Congress, the program would represent the largest single new commitment in multiyear funds for the state and local justice system since passage of the 1994 legislation.

Designed as an incentive program, the 21st Century Justice Initiative would make funding available to states interested in:

  • Changing state laws and policies to reduce unnecessary incarceration;
  • Promoting advances in policing that build community trust and increase police effectiveness;
  • Providing comprehensive front-end and reentry services.

The initiative also would reserve 10 percent of funds for the support of criminal justice reform at the federal level, including re-entry. The program is framed in the budget as a legislative proposal, which means that many of the details, including how the legislation would be paid for and any amounts reserved for specific purposes, may be fleshed out in eventual legislation that has not yet been introduced in Congress.

The legislation builds on prior Obama administration proposals, as well as federal reforms contemplated in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. That bill, which has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee with support from both Republicans and Democrats, reduces mandatory minimums for certain non-violent and low-level drug offenders.

Much of the focus of this latest White House proposal sounds familiar. For example, the Brennan Center has been pushing for a proposal much like this. In October, the Brennan Center offered a legislative proposal for a Reverse Mass Incarceration Act that would invest $20 billion in incentives to states over ten years to reduce incarceration. The Brennan Center also has helped steer thinking on incentives in criminal justice. In October 2013, the Center offered a policy proposal, Success Oriented Funding, that would dramatically change the incentives for existing grants such as the Edward J. Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program in order to reduce incarceration. Changing incentives, whether with new money or old, is exactly what is needed to drive change.

The 21st Century Justice Initiative also is an outgrowth of reforms already supported by the administration. For example, changing state policies on incarceration while promoting public safety is a signature focus of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which the Obama administration has been supporting in earnest with significant resources since 2013. Building community trust through improved community policing builds on the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, formed in the wake of unrest over police practices in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities. The focus on comprehensive re-entry services stems from increasing evidence that the formerly incarcerated have the best opportunity for reentry when all of their needs are addressed in tandem — e.g., mental health services, housing, and job training — instead of only piecemeal.

Prospects for eventual enactment of this proposal are uncertain, at best. Congress is unlikely to sign off on costly new legislation without taking equivalent reductions elsewhere. Further, Congress has not enacted the much smaller Byrne Incentive Grants proposed in each of the president’s previous three budgets that aimed to improve the use of almost $400 million in Byrne Justice Assistance Grants used by state and local law enforcement.

While prospects for this latest Obama administration proposal might appear dim, it almost goes without saying that it does come at the right time. There is now more bipartisan support in Congress and across the country for criminal justice reform than at any point in the last 20 years. The 21st Century Justice Initiative is just the kind of federal carrot that states and localities could use as they move to put some of the new thinking about crime policy into practice.  

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.