The Last Thing We Need is More Money for Prisons, But That Is What Obama Wants

Human Rights

At the same time the Obama administration is talking about a dramatic "spending freeze" on any and all projects unrelated to war-making, it is quietly increasing the federal budget for even more prisons.

On February 1, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the administration would request $2.9 billion for the Department of Justice 2011 budget -- "a 5.4 percent increase in budget authority," according to the DOJ. Approximately $527.5 million would go to the federal Bureau of Prisons, a chunk of which would provide “bed space” to house prisoners currently at Guantanamo Bay (and ostensibly slated for transfer to the supermax prison in Thomson, IL).

"We have an obligation to protect our country in smart, reliable ways at every level," Holder said, invoking both the "fight against global terrorism" as well as the need to enforce "civil rights and the rule of law."

Smart and reliable, however, aren't words many Americans would use to describe our existing prison system, which has grown so rapidly and reached such epic proportions that serious efforts are underway across U.S. states to slash their prison populations out of sheer necessity. Once seen as too politically risky, prison reform is catching on, with more and more local politicians recognizing that locking people up at a rampant pace is untenable and counterproductive. (After all, as James Ridgeway points out at MotherJones: “Keep in mind that federal spending on prisons is dwarfed by state spending. While the BOP’s budget is over $6 billion, the United States as a whole currently spends about $68 billion a year on corrections, mostly at the state level.”)

Yet, the Obama administration appears committed to continuing the very same policies that have fueled the prison crisis, and which states are attempting to reform. Last week the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute issued a fact sheet describing its new DOJ budget in bleak terms. The report, "More Policing, Prisons, and Punitive Policies," warns that the "funding pattern" represented by Obama's budget "will likely result in increased costs to states for incarceration that will outweigh the increased revenue for law enforcement, with marginal public safety benefits."

The report zeroes in on two areas that have been earmarked for more funds: the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants and the cleverly named Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The former, a creation of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act (and referred to as JAG grants), are federal dollars that are awarded to state governments, ostensibly for various possible initiatives, but which, according to the JPI, usually go "to law enforcement rather than prevention, drug treatment, or community services." The latter, a Clinton-era initiative more broadly referred to as community policing, also provides grants to local jurisdictions to "hire and train community policing professionals, acquire and deploy cutting-edge crime-fighting technologies, and develop and test innovative policing strategies," according to the official COPS Web site, which boasts that "by the end of FY 2008, the COPS Office had funded approximately 117,000 additional officers to more than 13,000 of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country in small and large jurisdictions alike."

The problem is that neither program seems to be particularly effective beyond putting more cops on the street -- and both appear to contribute to the already racist nature of the American prison system. In a letter to U.S. representatives last year, which sought to discourage Congress from inserting more law enforcement spending into the stimulus in the absence of measures focusing on prevention, treatment and re-entry, organizations including the ACLU, the Sentencing Project and the National Black Police Association warned that "past Byrnes and COPS grants have had the unintended consequence of perpetuating racial disparities and civil rights abuses."

What's more, "Byrne Grants and COPS programs have not been shown to have a significant positive impact on public safety." Instead, "these programs have often resulted in increased arrests and incarceration of nonviolent drug users."

Nonviolent drug users are the very prisoners now being slated for early release in states like California, where prison overcrowding is an all too destructive -- and costly -- reality. In this sense, the Obama administration's plan and that of U.S. states attempting to reform their local prison systems seem to be working at cross-purposes. As one report in USA Today pointed out earlier this month, "The federal spending plan contrasts with the criminal justice strategies pursued in many cash-strapped states, including California, Kansas and Kentucky, where officials have closed prisons or allowed for the early release of some non-violent offenders."

Nonetheless, the Obama administration has already provided funding to these programs; $4 billion went to the DOJ via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year. If the $29 billion for 2011 is a pretty good indication of the administration's priorities going forward, it looks like we'll be seeing a recycling of some of the misguided criminal justice policies of the Clinton years.

According to the JPI, "In the 1990s, COPS grants were part of the reason for the growth in the prison population by 45 percent over 7 years and state corrections spending by 76 percent.”

Re-invigorating this program is likely to further increase the prison population, without a significant drop in crime. It will also likely increase the disproportionate contact communities of color have with the criminal justice system due to concentrated policing in neighborhoods with a high Latino and/or African American composition.

In the meantime, one area where the Obama administration has decided to provide less funding is in programming for juvenile prisoners -- bad news for the estimated 100,000 youth behind bars in this country who make up the country’s most vulnerable prison population.

"Juvenile justice programs received $546.9 million in FY 2002,” according to the JPI. “Funding has been dropping almost consistently since then, and the Administration has proposed another $133 million decline in the proposed FY2011 budget, down to $290 million."

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