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New Policy Proposal: Reform Federal Grants to Modernize Law Enforcement

A new Brennan Center policy proposal suggests the president should make broad reforms to federal grants across the country that fund state and local law enforcement to help prevent problems like the ongoing crisis in Ferguson, Mo.

August 28, 2014

Last week the ongoing crisis in Ferguson, Mo. prompted President Obama to call for a review of federal programs that send military equipment and money to police departments. A new policy proposal released today from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law suggests he go further. The president should make broader reforms to federal grants across the country that fund state and local law enforcement.

Specifically, the president should use his executive authority to recast all federal grants for criminal justice in a “Success-Oriented Funding” model, in which the flow of dollars is linked to the achievement of clear goals. Recent events have shown that grant programs run by the federal government have a powerful role in shaping the behavior of law enforcement.

“The question is not whether police should have more money or less money,” said report co-author Inimai Chettiar. “But rather what they do with that money. Washington should not be in the business of giving out funds without knowing or condoning their ultimate use. When these dollars flow on autopilot, they have contributed to an explosion in arrests and imprisonments, often without accompanying public safety benefits.”

“This is a moment for strong executive leadership to examine grants that encourage harmful law enforcement practices or have unclear goals, and recast them in a way that reduces crime and violence without encouraging unnecessary force, whether through police behavior or undue focus on arrests and incarceration,” said report co-author Nicole Fortier. “The administration has a real opportunity here to affect meaningful change, without recourse to Congress.”

Federal grants for criminal justice send at least $3.8 billion to states and localities each year, money that flows to police departments, prosecutors, courts, prisons, and reentry programs, often with little oversight. Grants for national security send billions more.

Success-Oriented Funding would require that federal grant money is only awarded to states and localities with clear goals in mind. A recipient’s success at achieving those goals would be measured, and the distribution of future grant money could be premised on their success at doing so. Even in cases where funding streams do not allow grant money to be conditioned on meeting targets, by communicating priorities to grant recipients, federal agencies can affect their behavior.

Click here to read the full policy proposal, Success-Oriented Funding: Reforming Federal Criminal Justice Grants.

Click here to read more about the Brennan Center’s work to reform the criminal justice system.

To set up an interview or for more information, contact Naren Daniel at 646–292–8381 or