Budget cuts for police departments and court systems mean justice won’t be handed out evenly — or at all.
We can all recite the opening of Law and Order. “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.” As much as the show gets wrong about the real world, this narration gets it right: it takes both law and order (i.e. police and court systems) to serve justice to the people. Yet neither of those services is free. We are officially in an age of austerity and our justice system isn’t immune to the ravages of budget cutting. We’re getting justice on the cheap, and like that electric blanket you bought at the dollar store, it’s just not functioning correctly.
It’s no secret that state budgets have been hit hard by the recession and that the stimulus money that helped patch the holes is mostly gone. Public employees have been in the spotlight as they’ve been laid off and their bargaining rights have come under attack in response to the financial crunch. On the order side of the justice equation, police departments are no exception to the squeeze. By the end of 2011, 12,000 police officers were expected to have lost their jobs. That drop would be the first job decline in law enforcement in 25 years. This is just a sign of larger financial troubles. As a Justice Department report on the situation put it, it is “no longer a fiscal possibility” for governments to allocate half of their budgets to public safety. “The economic decline has severely affected law enforcement agencies’ operating budgets across the nation,” it states, leading to over one third of departments in a survey to report budget drops of more than 5 percent since 2009.