Justice On The Cheap Isn’t Justice At All

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.

This has a real impact on our police force’s ability to prevent and respond to crimes. About half of the agencies that responded to a recent survey said budget cuts had or would cause changes in the services provided to their communities. That includes 8 percent of the departments that are no longer responding to any car thefts and 9 percent of departments that are no longer responding to any burglar alarms. At all.

But that doesn’t mean all crimes go unpunished. While offenses like theft, beatings, and even domestic abuse are falling to the wayside, drug enforcement is keeping apace. There were around 50,000 people arrested for marijuana possession in New York City last year, but an expose by the Village Voice showed NYPD officers were encouraged to downgrade or ignore other crimes. Part of this is due to the pressure of reporting lower violent crime rates, but there is also a monetary motive at work. Drug arrests bring in money in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most direct incentive is the competition among police departments across the country for federal anti-drug grants. As the Huffington Post reports, “The more arrests and drug seizures a department can claim, the stronger its application for those grants.” It also reports, “police can seize property from people merely suspected of drug crimes,” and most of the cash from those assets goes back to the department.

This is likely why the percentage of homicides solved by police in Chicago dropped from 70 percent since 1991 to under 40 percent, yet the overall number of drug arrests increased 264 percent between 1980 and 2003. The need to go after the money distorts which cases get solved and which suspects get pursued — and that will only get worse if budgets continue to be crunched.

Things aren’t much prettier back on the other side. Even if the police do pursue your case, once you’re in court you may not find you can take it much further. A report by the American Bar Association, “Crisis in the Courts: Defining the Problem,” blames cuts in funding. “The failure of state and local legislatures to provide adequate funding is effectively — at times quite literally — closing the doors of our justice system,” it says. This has led to “hiring freezes, pay cuts, judicial furloughs, staff layoffs, early retirements, increased filing fees, and outright closures.”

The cuts have had a real impact. Fourteen state court systems have had to shorten their hours or even the number of days they’re open. Twenty-two have tried to offset the cuts by increasing filing fees and/or fines. Fourteen states have laid of staff entirely. Not to mention the furloughs and pay freezes that can’t be motivating judges and clerks to perform their jobs to the utmost of their capabilities. All of these dysfunctions have meant that states face the dilemma of putting untried defendants in local jails or releasing potentially violent offenders because further pre-trial detention is either “constitutionally impermissible or practically impossible.”

Cuts to our court systems don’t just mean distorted justice; they are also the definition of penny wise but pound foolish. Fully funding a court usually makes up about only 1 to 2 percent of a state and local budgets. Yet the costs of court-related delays in foreclosure cases in Florida alone have been estimated to be almost $10 billion. With the soaring caseload continuing to roll in from the foreclosure crisis alone, it makes no sense to be cutting back on our justice system.

One sure way to deny equal justice to the citizens of this country is to continue starving police departments and court systems of funding. If we’d rather continue our history of blind justice for all, we’ll have to get much smarter about what we shield from the budget cutting axe.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.


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