February 9, 2008

February 9, 2008 | Commentary on Crime

Heritage Foundation: Don't Burn the Byrne Grants

Americans have a love-hate relationship with crime. We're fascinated with it - as long as we're not the victims. We love watching "Law & Order" and "Court TV" or reading the latest crime novel, but we hate it when criminals actually target us or our neighborhoods.

For all sorts of political reasons, Congress has funded some worthwhile crime-prevention programs in some years, only to pull the money a year or two later. This makes no sense, and it needs to change.

Congress and the Bush administration could start by giving serious consideration to restoring some of the $350 million they've slashed from the Edward R. Byrne grant program.

Byrne grants give federal assistance to state and local law-enforcement agencies to fight crimes, some of which reach beyond their jurisdictions. There are 29 defined "purpose areas" for Byrne grant money.

Those that are truly interstate in nature - and thus deserving of federal Byrne grants - include interstate drug and gang task forces, DNA database identification systems, programs aimed at combating child abuse facilitated through the Internet and sex-offender registry databases.

Those purely local in nature include neighborhood-watch programs, specialized drug courts, drug-treatment programs and DUI rehab programs. Those costs should be borne by the states, as they are the ones that benefit from those programs, not the federal government.

Interstate crimes are unique. They are national problems and often fall to the federal government to solve, but they require the assistance of state and local police.

Local law enforcement has more manpower and intelligence about the criminals in their area than their federal counterparts, and so they are an essential part of the national strategy to combat these major crimes that affect all of us.

Byrne grants give local police the extra funds and incentive to do more than just catch the local crooks. No money leads to no incentive and sometimes no ability to catch some of the bad guys.

Congress cut total funding for the program by two-thirds, from $520 million in 2007 to $170 million for this year. These cuts are hitting law enforcers in every state and thousands of localities. Rural communities will be the hardest hit, and crime rates inevitably will go up.

For example, under the federal Adam Walsh Act, states must meet minimum national sex-offender registration standards established by Congress or face a 10 percent annual reduction in Byrne grant funding. By reducing Byrne grants, Congress effectively has eliminated the state's incentive under the Act to protect its citizens against sex offenders. That's bad policy.

Crime increasingly is becoming globalized, with international drug cartels, organized crime operating across all borders, a thriving Internet child pornography industry, trafficking in persons and all manner of smuggling of goods and substances.

Byrne grants help law enforcers collaborate, such as in interagency and interstate task forces, to identify, investigate and take down these criminal organizations. Without this kind of coordination, it becomes too expensive for states to attempt to capture drug distributors, gang leaders and child traffickers.

Without coordination, large criminal enterprises barely feel the wounds of local law enforcement arresting their low-level operatives. Fighting these groups effectively requires reaching further up the chain of command, which takes more than day-to-day policing.

Like every federal program, Byrne grants aren't perfect. Too much money goes to local police forces simply to "beef up" their operations - in other words, for ordinary policing. That's important, but it's not a federal priority and shouldn't get federal funding. Too often, police forces use the money to pay for things they would have bought anyway.

That is the problem with the COPS program, which sought to put 100,000 "new" officers on the street to help cut violent crime rates. Many detailed research studies show that COPS has failed as a crime-reduction policy. Yet Congress continues to give it money every year. The Byrne grant program is different than COPS, but there's always a risk it could slide too far in that direction.

Like many federal programs, Byrne grants also could use better evaluation procedures to provide greater information on the program's value and what grant-making strategies give the most bang for the buck.

Still, even with these shortcomings, Byrne grants play a vital role in national crime-fighting. Congress should move quickly to restore funding to Byrne grant purpose areas that are truly federal in nature before police departments are forced to reduce the number of police and programs dedicated to important interstate crime prevention.

Cully Stimson, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, is a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). Andrew Grossman, a senior legal policy analyst at Heritage, assisted in the preparation of this article..

About the Author

Charles "Cully" Stimson Manager, National Security Law Program and Senior Legal Fellow
Center for National Defense

Related Issues: Crime

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