REUTERS

The power of a questionnaire. 

Every year, the U.S. Justice Department sends hundreds of millions of dollars to states and municipalities via the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant. Named for 22-year-old NYPD Officer Edward Byrne, who was murdered in 1988 while he sat in his patrol car, the JAG program provides "critical funding necessary to support a range of program areas, including law enforcement; prosecution, courts, and indigent defense; crime prevention and education; corrections and community corrections; drug treatment and enforcement; program planning, evaluation, and technology improvement; and crime victim and witness initiatives."

Despite what that long list suggests, the bulk of JAG funding ends up going toward fighting the drug war. "Historically," the Drug Policy Alliance noted in 2010, "Byrne Grants have been used primarily to finance drug task forces, which have a record of racially disproportionate low level drug arrests and increased local and state costs with no measurable impact on public safety." At the time, the group suggested that JAG funding be reallocated in favor of more drug treatment programs, rather than enforcement. 

As it stands, 60 percent of JAG funding over the last three years—totaling more than half a billion dollars—has gone to law enforcement activities. In a new report, titled "Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration" [PDF], the Brennan Center for Justice explains why: Because law enforcement agencies can do whatever they want with this money, and most of them think the best way to keep that money coming is to arrest as many people as possible.

This is no accident. The annual self-evaluation JAG recipients are required to complete measures performance in a way, says the Brennan Center report, that is "roughly analogous to a hospital counting the number of emergency room admissions, instead of considering the number of lives saved." Agencies are asked how many arrests they made, and prosecutors are asked how many cases they won. Not only is that data rather useless in terms of assessing the effectiveness of a given policy, it also says to the person answering the questions that their numbers should be really big. 

JAG funding is only a slice of a law enforcement agency's budget, but it can still be a lot of money. Many cities receive JAG funding directly (L.A., New York, Chicago, Houston receive millions a year), and money also goes to states to dole out as they see fit. In 2013, Texas, California, Florida, New York, and Illinois received between $10 and $30 million in JAG grants. As a result of the perception that more arrests are better, the majority of JAG funding goes toward drug and gang enforcement. Programs that arguably should receive more funding in an age of over-incarceration get far less: drug treatment programs receive only 5 percent of JAG funding, while on average .004 percent goes toward indigent defense. 

Former and current law enforcement officials interviewed by the Brennan Center said that the DOJ's current JAG questionnaire encourages agencies to report "accomplishments that are easy to track but meaningless." To change that, says the Brennan Center, the Justice Department could do something awfully simple: ask a better set of questions when reviewing how agencies spent their grant money.

Is a new questionnaire going to "fix" over-policing of minor crimes and over-incarceration of non-violent offenders? No. But changing incentives is a first step in changing culture. "By signaling to recipients that effectiveness, proportionality, and fairness are DOJ priorities," the Brennan report suggests, "the proposed measures can help turn off the 'automatic pilot' of more punishment — and more incarceration." The entire report is worth reading and can be found here.

Top image: An officer goes through SWAT training in Utah. JAG grants pay for this kind of training. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

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