All Talk, No Action: Debunking the Trump Administration’s Support for Law Enforcement

A police officer talks with a superior officer on the phone.

Over the last year, Trump administration officials have gone to great lengths to assure the American people that they are a “law and order” administration that is committed to supporting our nation’s police officers. Speaking to a group of law enforcement leaders, Vice President Mike Pence touted President Donald Trump’s investments in local public safety agencies and vowed that he “will not rest” until police departments have the training and funding necessary to do their jobs. “You have the gratitude and resolve of our President,” Pence concluded, “and our determination to give you the resources you need.” But the Trump administration, it seems, has lost its resolve. Far from increasing investments in police officers, the administration is withholding the largest source of federal support for state and local law enforcement agencies: the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program.

Administered by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, JAG is a flexible funding stream allocated to state and local governments based on population and crime rates. DOJ hails the program as a critical resource for jurisdictions to pursue their own public safety priorities, from gun and gang violence to substance use treatment and victim support services. Though more than $257 million was allocated for Fiscal Year 2017 state and local JAG awards, the administration is holding the entire sum hostage in their battle against so-called sanctuary cities.

The issue began in July 2017, when DOJ attached new immigration-related requirements to JAG awards. Instituted as part of the Trump administration’s effort to cut off federal support for sanctuary cites, the grant conditions would allow federal immigration authorities to access local correctional facilities and require communities to notify immigration authorities 48 hours before releasing individuals of interest. After the City of Chicago filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the provisions, a federal judge barred DOJ from imposing the requirements on any jurisdiction—not just Chicago. A similar injunction was issued two months later in a lawsuit filed by the City of Philadelphia. DOJ had issued two JAG awards prior to the Chicago ruling, but the agency has refused to release another dime while their appeal makes its way through court. Rather than issuing grants without the immigration requirements, the Trump administration has frozen their support for law enforcement altogether—including in communities without sanctuary policies.

In the meantime, nearly 1,000 localities are left waiting for much-needed funding. Funds are typically disbursed by the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30, but community police departments have had to go without these critical funds for six months now. Understandably, this delay is raising serious concerns for law enforcement leaders around the country, including Michael Lawlor, the undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning in Connecticut. “This is money a lot of police departments count on every year,” he said.

Nationwide, JAG has helped jurisdictions implement fair and equitable approaches to public safety. Kentucky, for example, used JAG to fund an innovative program that allows social workers and public defenders to create individualized sentencing plans that divert offenders away from incarceration. Instead, individuals are placed in community-based treatment options that are tailored to address substance use, behavioral health, and other needs. Not only has the program effectively reduced recidivism among participants, but it has also saved the state more than $1 million in costs of incarceration.

JAG has also helped Illinois move toward smart approaches to public safety. Using JAG dollars, Illinois is providing in-prison substance use treatment and after care for incarcerated men. The initiative has shown promising results for participants and has saved $64 million in correctional expenses. Local grantees have also implemented successful strategies using JAG funds.

In Jacksonville, Florida, JAG dollars support a reentry program that provides GED preparation and skills-trainings for justice-involved individuals. Those who complete the program have a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent, a significant improvement over the 23 percent recidivism rate among their peers. And in Stamford, Connecticut, JAG is used to expand community policing efforts such as foot patrols in at-risk neighborhoods. “The relationships that we build with the community during these crime prevention activities are invaluable,” explained Assistant Police Chief Thomas Wuennemann.

State and local JAG grantees have made tremendous strides towards funding data-driven solutions to crime prevention and recidivism reduction. Still, some grantees can find it difficult to move away from outdated and ineffective “tough on crime” strategies. Recent reforms, however, are helping to realign JAG’s priorities, including, the Obama administration’s overhaul of JAG’s performance metrics to incentivize evidence-based approaches for reducing crime and incarceration.

Though continued accountability is necessary to strengthen the program, JAG funds are clearly strengthening public safety in communities across the country. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that compliance with federal immigration enforcement efforts has the same effect. Research shows that sanctuary policies have no impact on crime rates—despite the Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ efforts to manipulate the data to prove otherwise. Studies consistently disprove the misconception that immigration increases crime, showing that immigrants are actually less likely to be incarcerated than native residents. Analysis by the Center for American Progress, for example, shows that counties with sanctuary policies have an average of 35.5 fewer crimes per 10,000 residents when compared to counties without such policies.

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have condemned DOJ’s decision for jeopardizing public safety. In a letter to Attorney General Sessions, 94 members of the House of Representatives warned that withholding JAG funds will “undermine state and local law enforcement’s efforts to keep our communities safe” and put local police departments “in a position where they cannot effectively do their jobs.” A bipartisan group of senators also urged Sessions to reinstate support for public safety agencies. “With increased efforts to combat the opioid epidemic,” the senators wrote, “Byrne JAG funding for local law enforcement is more important than ever.” By prioritizing ineffective immigration policies over vital support for law enforcement, the Trump administration is endangering our communities.

Betsy Pearl is the campaign manager for Criminal Justice Reform at American Progress.