OP-ED: A New Approach Needed for Byrne-JAG Funding in California

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Federal funding is a crucial component in how states develop their criminal and juvenile justice policy strategies, particularly in this time of budget deficits. States can leverage these funds to support a wide range of programs, which include education, law enforcement, reentry services and alternatives to detention. However, policymakers must recognize that no funding stream will continue in perpetuity. Instead, states must use federal funds to incubate sustainable innovation that is cost-effective and improves public safety outcomes.

Byrne-JAG funding (JAG) funding is a major federal source of flexible grant resources, administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), for state and local projects. These funds totaled some $295 million in 2012. A BJA report found that 2,000 law enforcement programs received funding. The funds must be used in-line with seven program purpose areas, which include law enforcement, prosecution and courts, prevention and education, corrections and community corrections, drug treatment, planning and evaluation.

Recent national analysis found that many states use JAG funding to develop innovative evidence-based programs and strengthen data collection practices. Louisiana has allocated JAG funding to help develop pretrial programs and necessary technology upgrades. In Montana, JAG funding has helped redesign the state Board of Crime Control to make more publicly accessible crime statistics and reporting.

However, the current fiscal climate has diminished the availability of JAG funds. A recent survey of justice professionals to gauge changes found since FY 2010, JAG grants have dropped by 34 percent. More than 80 percent of surveyed practitioners experienced cuts in juvenile justice programs.

California receives approximately $20 million annually in JAG funding. Historically, it uses many of these funds for drug suppression through multi-community drug task forces and marijuana eradication programs.

This funding is problematic, given the absence of performance outcomes and the questionable effect on public safety. One national evaluation of these task forces found, “Not only were data insufficient to estimate what task forces accomplished, data were inadequate to even tell what the task forces did as routine work. … Federal grants were awarded without even the rudiments of performance monitoring.” The Drug Policy Alliance has called for using JAG funds to support effective drug treatment and reentry services.

In 2011, the state gave a one-time JAG allocation to support community-based juvenile reentry programs through the California Youthful Offender Reentry (Cal-YOR) program. This program provides wraparound services for youth, ages 16 to 23, following confinement or out-of-home placement. The 2011 allocation of Cal-YOR proved highly successful. Of the 411 youth enrolled in Cal-YOR, at an average daily cost of $105, the program had a 1.4 percent recidivism rate while in the program.

This year California’s Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) revisited JAG funding and is responsible for developing the JAG funding strategy. However, the Board is largely made up of law enforcement officials, many from the agencies requesting JAG funding, creating a potential conflict of interest.

The BSCC held public comment sessions and released an online survey to facilitate stakeholder input. Respondents rated prevention and education as the top funding priority. However, the Board only voted to reduce current applicants by 4 percent, largely continuing ineffective drug suppression programs, while extending funding for the Cal-YOR program.

Policymakers must acknowledge that JAG allocations could significantly decrease in the future. The BJA has noted, given the “current difficult budgetary climate, it is more critical than ever that JAG dollars are spent on programs with proven effectiveness.” California can no longer afford to spend JAG money on programs that lack outcome metrics, do not demonstrate significant success at reducing crime or have been identified as a low public safety priority.

As such, California should develop a long-term JAG strategy that is data-driven and informed by measurable performance outcomes. The state must ask how future grantees will reduce recidivism and improve public safety. Supporting programs simply as a legacy of funding inertia is irresponsible and stifles innovation.

Given the importance of data collection, California’s BSCC should use JAG funds to strengthen a network of county data collection, as other states are already doing. This would help counties and the BSCC evaluate program outcomes to better serve California’s public safety needs and help raise its justice practices to a national standard.

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