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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.