Why The White House Budget Is Not Quite As ‘Smart’ On Crime As It Seems

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The Obama administration is putting some of its money where its mouth is in its proposed 2015 budget, aiming to spend more on initiatives that would redirect law enforcement resources toward serious, violent crimes, and alleviate federal prison overcrowding. But that spending hasn’t yet translated to significantly less spending on the drug war, with some $14.5 billion still allocated to domestic and international drug crackdown efforts, compared to just under $11 billion on both drug treatment and prevention efforts.

Overall, the White House asked for 0.6 percent more funding for federal drug control efforts in 2015 than 2014, according to the Office of National Drug Policy. In promotion of this budget, the drug policy unit noted that its ratio of treatment to enforcement has improved significantly since 2013. What it doesn’t note is that this ratio of law enforcement spending (what it calls control of drug “supply”) to public health spending (what it calls control of “demand”) is just coming down to the same level it was in 2004 under George W. Bush, before “supply” spending spiked significantly in the intervening years.

“It is good to see the increases in spending for some treatment and prevention line items, but the increases don’t match the administration’s rhetoric about a ’21st Century’ approach to drug control,” said Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell. “Not by a long shot.”

The sentiment of the “Smart on Crime” initiative and Attorney General Eric Holder’s message that “too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason,” represents a monumental shift away from traditional “tough on crime” attitudes. And the Justice Department’s request for a new $173 million investment in the program signals the agency’s long-term commitment to policy, with programs that include are a $10 million in “smart probation” to move offenders out of prison and into re-entry programs that transition them back to life outside prison walls, as well as grants through the Justice Reinvestment Act that assist states seeking to reform their laws away from over-incarceration and criminalization, at a cost of $115 million.

In theory, being “smart on crime” should save money in the long run — the idea is to cut prison budgets and reallocate resources in an economical way. “Each dollar spent on prevention and reentry has the potential to save several dollars in incarceration costs,” Holder said in a statement.

But this $173 million proposed investment is a tiny blip in the DOJ’s $27.4 billion budget plan even though the administration calls it a “key highlight,” further offset by decreased budgets for several other smaller criminal justice programs. And it pales in comparison to the billions spent on the drug war — in addition to the $8.5 billion on federal prison detention. Drug offenses account for almost half of the federal prison population.

The blame for this law enforcement and prison spending does not lie primarily with the White House. Executive agencies are charged with enforcing drug and sentencing laws that have not yet been reformed, despite momentum that suggests they could be. In fact, Congress may not even pass a formal budget this year (although DOJ says it can find the money for the Smart on Crime programs anyway). And while Holder is using his Smart on Crime initiative to urge law enforcement away from overly punitive crackdowns and sentences in some cases, only a change in the law would make a significant dent in the bloated federal prison population. Among potential reforms are several bipartisan sentencing bills now pending in Congress, and proposed reforms to marijuana laws.