When the Consolidated Appropriations Act was enacted by Congress in 2005, the U.S. economy was growing, tax collections were rising and law enforcement’s gravy train of funding was gaining momentum. Although more recently the economy has finally started to recover from the Great Recession, prisoner populations have dropped and corrections expenditures have leveled off, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) continued to provide almost $180 million in funding to state law enforcement agencies in fiscal year 2016.
The program used to distribute the money is now called the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG), and according to the DOJ such grants can be used for law enforcement, prosecution and courts, prevention and education, corrections and community corrections, drug treatment, planning and evaluation, technology improvement, and crime victim and witness programs. See: 42 U.S.C. § 3751(a). However, many observers believe that JAG funds have primarily been used to purchase new buildings and equipment that taxpayers would otherwise not be interested in funding.
There is a complicated allocation formula used to determine each state’s share of the federal government’s largess, but unsurprisingly the largest sums went to the largest states – California ($18.2 million), Texas ($13.3 million), Florida ($11.3 million), New York ($9.2 million) and Illinois ($6.7 million). That only covers grant funds distributed to state agencies; the JAG program also provides money to local law enforcement. For example, cities and counties in California received around $11 million in FY 2016, while those in Texas received $7.1 million. New York City alone received almost $4.3 million.
JAG grants are a perfect example of how the federal government overly complicates what should be a locally-supervised and funded undertaking, by initially imposing taxes to obtain the funds, bringing them to Washington, running the funds through the DOJ bureaucracy, then redistributing them to states and local governments via a formula that requires three pages of fine print to explain. It’s no wonder that state and local law enforcement agencies try to pad their budgets through civil forfeitures and programs that allow them to receive surplus military property.
Criminal justice reform advocates contend that JAG funds could be better spent on programs to reduce recidivism, including resources to address prisoners’ substance abuse and mental health problems, than to pad law enforcement budgets.
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