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Obama’s 2011 Budget Calls for More Prisons, More Guards

So much for “hope” and “change.” President Obama’s fiscal year (FY) 2011 budget for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is simply more of the same – more prisons, more guards, more cops. At least when it comes to the criminal justice system, Republicans and Democrats apparently have no trouble finding consensus.

According to a recent report from the Justice Policy Institute, the President’s proposed FY 2011 budget, which covers spending for federal government operations from October 1, 2010 to September 31, 2011, asks for a whopping $29.2 billion for the DOJ – largely to fund programs and policies that will cause crime rates and prison populations to increase.

The DOJ’s budget request is on top of $4 billion already provided to the department through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, better known as the federal “stimulus package,” and reflects a 5.4 percent increase over the DOJ’s 2010 budget appropriation.

Some $500 million of Obama’s FY 2011 budget is dedicated to providing Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assis-tance Grants to the states. Byrne grants can be used for a variety of different purposes, but past experience has demonstrated that most go to law enforcement efforts rather than prevention, drug treatment or community services. The $500 million is in addition to $2 billion already allocated for Byrne grants through the stimulus package. The net result from increased Byrne grant funding is more arrests and prosecutions, which means more prisoners – even though focusing on law enforcement instead of prevention and treatment does not necessarily improve public safety.

President Obama has also requested $690 million for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants, which allow states and municipalities to hire and retain police officers. The requested $690 million, which includes $600 million for hiring and retention, is on top of $1 billion already provided for such grants through the stimulus package.

Obama’s Office of Management and Budget said that hiring more police officers “will help states and communities prevent the growth of crime as the nation’s economy recovers.” But as the Justice Policy Institute points out, “protecting public safety and supporting continued economic growth can be more cost-effectively accomplished by investing in positive community services and jobs that do not lead to more incarceration.” As with the Byrne grants, increased COPS fund-ing is likely to “increase the prison population, without a significant drop in crime.”

Other regressive funding measures include a $528 million increase for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), U.S. Marshals Service, Office of the Federal Detention Trustee and U.S. Parole Commission, for a total of $6.8 billion. The addi-tional funding includes money to operate two new prisons (including a supermax facility in Thompson, Illinois to house terrorism detainees presently held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba); to contract for 1,000 more private prison beds; and to hire 652 more BOP guards and fill 1,200 vacant job positions. The BOP already houses more than 200,000 prisoners and spends over $800 million a year on contract beds, largely to house illegal immigrants convicted of federal crimes.

Unfortunately, as the Justice Policy Institute put it, “increased funding for more prison beds has been shown to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you build it, they will come.” Further, funding for additional federal prison beds sets a bad example, especially at a time when cash-strapped states are trying to cut corrections costs and reduce their prison populations.

Obama’s budget also calls for a special line item allotment of $20 million to help coerce states into compliance with the Adam Walsh Act, even though studies have found there is little relationship between keeping children safe and the sex offender registration requirements embodied in the Act. Thus far only three states are in compliance with the Adam Walsh Act, indicating that most don’t consider it a priority. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.24].

As for justice-related programs that may actually work to prevent and decrease crime, thereby reducing crime rates, funding is being pared back or not increased. For example, Obama’s FY 2011 budget allocates $290 million for juvenile justice programs, down significantly from $423 million in FY 2010. Also, reentry initiatives, including those under the Second Chance Act, are set to receive only $100 million, while a paltry $57 million has been designated for drug court programs.

To put that in perspective, the $100 million for reentry services, to help released prisoners return to their communities without reoffending, constitutes just .34 percent of the DOJ’s total $29.2 billion FY 2011 budget request.

In all, President Obama, like his predecessors, is singing the same old song when it comes to criminal justice priorities. Nationwide an estimated $60 billion is spent on corrections, primarily on the state level.

Sources: Justice Policy Institute, “The Obama Administration’s 2011 Budget: More Policing, Prisons, and Punitive Policies” (February 2010); Washington Post;; USA Today

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