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Federal Justice Grants Need Overhaul, Critics Argue

Federal public safety and criminal justice grants are in dire need of modernization, argues the Center for American Progress.

The laws establishing these these grants were enacted in the mid-1990s during the height of the “tough-on-crime” era. Congress and the executive branch have not comprehensively reviewed the goals of these grants in more than 25 years, during which time studies have documented the failures of tough-on-crime approaches, says the center.

Advocates are seeking a smaller justice system that is no longer the primary response to many social issues, from behavioral health disorders to homelessness to school discipline.

The center contends that, “Federal funding mechanisms are still stuck in the 1990s. Instead of pushing jurisdictions toward justice reform, the largest available justice-related grants incentivize deference to law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, which have historically perpetuated approaches that drive up arrest and incarceration rates.”

The center says that funding streams for reform-minded strategies are small and are generally awarded on a competitive basis, limiting the number of jurisdictions that can use federal funds to promote change.

The center released an “issue brief” that outlines how it believes that DOJ should overhaul its grants “to ensure that federal dollars are used to support evidence-based strategies rooted in principles of fairness and justice.” Each year, DOJ distributes more than $5 billion in grants to state and local governments, research institutions, and nonprofit organizations.

The center says funds like the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) “give maximum flexibility to recipient jurisdictions to use the funds how they see fit with few meaningful constraints.”

Nearly 60 percent of state-level JAG funds are used to support law enforcement and corrections, “significantly outweighing investments in prevention efforts or justice system reform,” says the center.

This summary was prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.