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Justice Department Takes Steps to Reform Grant Program Incentives

The Department of Justice has made some subtle – but important – changes to its largest grant program, the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, to improve its transparency and accountability.

November 18, 2014

The Department of Justice has made some subtle – but important – changes to its largest grant program, the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG), through which it provides states and local jurisdictions nearly $300 million for law enforcement activities. These changes improve the program’s transparency and accountability.

Because DOJ plays such a large role in funding, what they ask of recipients – and how DOJ measures their success – has an outsized impact on criminal justice policy. How DOJ tracks Byrne JAG money has been criticized by the Brennan Center and other groups for measuring things that encourage overly harsh criminal justice policies, such as number of arrests, as opposed to drops in crime, a stronger measure of how successful grant recipients are at improving public safety. Using total number of arrests as a measure of performance can give police an incentive to arrest more people for low-level violations, an ineffective and often counterintuitive crime-reduction strategy. In a marked shift, DOJ has now removed “number of arrests” from its list of “accountability measures.”

DOJ has been under pressure from a unique bipartisan coalition that includes groups such as the Brennan Center, American Civil Liberties Union, Pat Nolan’s Prison Ministries, the Justice Policy Institute, the conservative reform group Right on Crime, and law enforcement groups. This coalition wrote to the Justice Department urging reform of Byrne JAG’s performance measures. As Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, wrote  “new performance measures communicate to law enforcement across the country that the targets they should be aiming for are those that reflect two modern criminal justice goals: reducing crime and reducing mass incarceration.”  By moving its measurements beyond a focus on arrests, DOJ is moving in this direction.

In a related move, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which administers the Byrne JAG program, has published a map breaking down how much money it awards, what recipients use it for. For example, users can learn that in Baytown, Texas, DOJ is spending $21,000 for a “Directed Overtime for Neighborhood Patrols and Firearms Training Project.” Such transparency is important because it allows law enforcement entities to ascertain DOJ’s funding priorities and to learn what similarly situated cities and counties are doing with their Byrne JAG funds. Byrne JAG recipients have noted in the past that this kind of tool would improve how they think about their own funding dollars.

While these are all steps in the right direction, there is more to be done. “Is a new questionnaire going to “fix” over-policing of minor crimes and over-incarceration of non-violent offenders? No. But changing incentives is a first step in changing culture,” the Atlantic noted. It is imperative that the Justice Department continue to pave the way for reform by improving other performance measures. For example, it can evaluate recipients on whether they screened those they arrested for drug or alcohol abuse or whether they spend Byrne JAG funds to improve police relations with the community. DOJ could ask what the law enforcement entity’s crime prevention strategy is or whether activities funded by Byrne JAG have improved how safe people feel visiting public spaces in specific jurisdictions. Tying funding as closely as possible to these types of goals will provide incentives for improving the safety of communities.

Because JAG funds travel throughout the country and touch so many criminal justice agencies and programs, they provide a unique pressure point for change to help the justice system better drive toward reducing crime and mass incarceration. This type of “Success-Oriented Funding” approach, which the Brennan Center has advocated be adopted more broadly, properly aligns incentives with desired policy outcomes.