Gazing into the Legislative Crystal Ball: The Future Federal Role in State and Local Criminal Justice Assistance

By Robinson, Laurie | Corrections Today, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Gazing into the Legislative Crystal Ball: The Future Federal Role in State and Local Criminal Justice Assistance


Robinson, Laurie, Corrections Today


One of the constants in Washington -- nearly as predictable as the cherry blossoms each spring -- is the belief that for every national problem, there is a federal solution. In the area of crime, however, governmental divisions of labor blur this picture. Since states and localities handle more than 90 percent of the country's criminal justice business, the federal government's natural role might be one of limited partner. But since the 1960s, the federal role has dramatically expanded. In addition to more and more traditional state crimes being prosecuted in federal court, the federal grants-in-aid program for states and localities has grown exponentially: From its roots as a tiny $7.5 million initiative in 1965, the program now sends out more than $5 billion in grants annually to help in the fight against crime. In the past decade alone, those dollars have increased by 500 percent.

But what will -- or should -- be the future of federal assistance with crime? With attention (and funding) shifting to homeland security and with federal deficits growing, the incoming 108th Congress will need to tackle the question of what is now the appropriate federal role in domestic crime prevention and control. As a backdrop to that inquiry -- both complicating it and giving it urgency -- is the fact that crime rates are beginning to rise again in many cities after years of decline, according to the FBI's 2001 Uniform Crime Report.

Reflecting on History

In order to provide context for considering the federal assistance program's future, it is helpful to reflect on its past. President Lyndon Johnson set up the small Office of Law Enforcement Assistance in the Department of Justice in 1965, charging it with supporting crime-related research and innovation. But it was not until the Johnson Crime Commission issued its landmark report1 two years later that a real vision for the federal role was first articulated. It called for federal leadership and support in a host of areas, including state and local criminal justice planning; education and training; technology research and development; social science research; and grants for innovation. At the same time, however, the commission warned that any such program be "mindful of the special importance of avoiding any invasion of state and local responsibility."

With increasing national fears about rising crime and civil disorders, Congress quickly acted on these recommendations, and in 1968, established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. During its 14-year life, LEAA represented an ambitious experiment in not only addressing crime, but in federal-state relations. Through a combination of state block grants and federal discretionary spending, it pursued many of the goals articulated in the Crime Commission report -- building capacity for state-level criminal justice planning, developing a national statistics and research program, and seeding demonstration projects.

The LEAA era had important legacies: While its budget in any year never exceeded $1 billion, it not only fostered communication across the fragmented criminal justice system, but it also improved crime-related data collection, paid for higher education for thousands in law enforcement and corrections through the Law Enforcement Education Program, targeted new strategies such as prosecutor career criminal units, and developed technologies such as the bulletproof vest.

While the program initially tilted heavily toward law enforcement and there was wide acknowledgment that corrections was not getting its share of the funding pie, (2) Congress' addition in 1970 of a new "Part E" to the original LEAA statute, requiring targeted spending for corrections under state block grants, helped to even the balance. (3) In addition, in 1974, Congress created the National Institute of Corrections, which is housed separately within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to train corrections professionals and perform related functions. …

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