The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 16, 2014

How “zero-sum funding” can impact the whole criminal justice system

April 16, 2014

In a recent story in The Crime Report, reporter Deirdre Bannon brings to light a critical policy issue that demands our attention: the tensions related to zero-sum funding of criminal justice programs.

Bannon’s story describes how the Department of Justice will penalize states found to be noncompliant with Prison Rape Elimination Act  standards with a five percent cut in federal funding for corrections. However, Bannon also reports the money will be filtered back to states for them to improve practices to become compliant. Sounds good, right?

That is, until you read that these funds “are being taken from a category of grants that support violence against women programs, drug courts, and reentry services so individuals stay out of prison.”

The funding switch could force some states to cut these types of programs entirely, leaving criminal justice leaders across the country with tough choices.

When we offset new funding by cutting established funding, the implications for public safety are problematic at best and harmful at worst, particularly when it comes to serving victims of crime.

For one thing, it asks us to choose between victims. Cutting victim services and programs to prevent and respond to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking through the Violence Against Women Act for the sake of programs to prevent and respond to prison rape may leave groups of victims without assistance. All victims have a right to the support and resources they need to recover and move forward after being violated.

Cutting drug courts and reentry programs that rehabilitate offenders also presents a no-win solution. These interventions are in the best interest of public safety, because they decrease the odds of reoffending. In our five-year study of drug courts, we found that those who participated had lower relapse rates and committed fewer additional crimes—all types of crimes—than those who didn’t.

We also know that high-quality reentry programs can be critical for the success of returning prisoners, and this body of knowledge is growing. Programs that effectively prepare them for employment, offer education and vocational training, and provide stable housing help reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend. If we can lower their odds of committing another crime, then we help prevent others from becoming crime victims.

As the research shows, programs that address both victims’ and offenders’ needs benefit society as a whole, and cutting one at the expense of another leaves whole populations vulnerable.  We know that justice can and should hold offenders accountable, while implementing practices that prevent further crime. And justice can and should restore victims’ well-being and mend the breach in the social contract that the crime imposed. Justice for victims, justice for offenders, or public safety for all?  Why should we have to choose?

Photo: A California domestic violence shelter, which provided beds for 12, at a cost of $60,000 a year, was closed June 30, when it lost state funding due to the failure of the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lawmakers to reach a budget. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

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