Debate Looms over Budget's Approach to Crime

The administration and some law enforcement groups are at odds over whether the proposed federal budget for 2008 would cut grants to state and local anti-crime efforts.

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And state and local law enforcement groups are also upset over the president's proposed budget. They say it cuts their funding by about 75 percent. The Justice Department says the president's request has not changed since last year. In a way, both statements are true.

NPR's Ari Shapiro explains.

ARI SHAPIRO: It's easy to ready to read the chart of proposed funding for state and local law enforcement in the president's budget, because a lot of the numbers in the chart are not numbers at all, they're flat lines, as in zero funding. Drug courts, gone. Prison rape prevention, gone. Cannabis eradication, gone. Mentally ill offender program, gone.

Gene Voegtlin is legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Mr. GENE VOEGTLIN (Legislative Counsel, International Association of Chiefs of Police): When you look at all the cuts that we're talking about and all the reductions that we're talking about, it's really, as you look at that picture, it's kind of a very depressing proposal.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department says there are no cuts. They say the president has asked for the same amount of money he did last year. All of those programs that were eliminated - the Justice Department says they're not gone. Instead, they'll all compete for the same centralized pot of money. Will Machella(ph) is with the Justice Department.

Mr. WILL MACHELLA (Department of Justice): These funds need to go to the best programs out there. The most innovative, the ones that show results, the ones that are doing things to control overhead and the like. And so competition for these scarce resources should be viewed as a step in the right direction.

SHAPIRO: But Voegtlin of the police chief's group says the government is putting about $2 billion worth of programs into a half billion dollar bucket.

Mr. VOEGTLIN: You know, consolidating is fine. But, you know, consolidating these programs and then cutting the funding by $1.3 billion is more than just encouraging competition. It's killing a lot of programs.

SHAPIRO: And that highlights the other major discrepancy between the way the two sides see the budget. They disagree over whether the president is asking for cuts in the programs. Here's what's going on: Every year, the president asks for a pot of money and before Congress gives it to him, lawmakers change the budget. It's become a regular routine that President Bush says he wants to cut the budget for state and local crime fighting and then Congress puts the money back in.

Senator HERB KOHL (Democrat, Wisconsin): Certainly, we're going to fight really hard to put that money back in.

SHAPIRO: Herb Kohl of Wisconsin is a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He's especially concerned about cuts to a popular program called COPS, Community Oriented Policing Services. At its peak in the 90s, it got $1.5 billion a year. Last year it received less than half a billion. The new budget cuts down the program to only $32 million. Senator Kohl.

Sen. KOHL: When you get down to $32 million for the whole country, you know, you're talking about a program that they would like basically to eliminate. Now we're obviously not going to accept that up here, you know, on the Hill and we're going to work hard to see to it that a program that like more cops walking our street is not de-funded.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department says the COPS program is complete. Will Machella.

Mr. MACHELLA: The COPS program was established with a particular mission and focus, and it achieved that mission and focus. It was never intended to last forever. We work with our state and local counterparts everyday. And you should not measure our commitment to that effort by just this figure.

SHAPIRO: Law enforcement groups retort that violent crime is increasing across the country, hardly a good time to cut money for crime fighting.

In the end, this dance serves both the White House and Congress. President Bush gets credit for proposing a slim budget. Lawmakers get credit for saving community law enforcement programs. And when the dust finally settles, the American people write the check.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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