Gideon Alert: Transparency in Federal Criminal Justice Grants

BY David Carroll on Thursday, August 12, 2010 at 12:22 PM

Louisiana has a decentralized form of government.  With the ratification of the 1974 Louisiana Constitution, local subdivisions – known as parishes – were empowered with broad home rule authority, reversing the traditional concept of local government as a “creature of the state” possessing only delegated authority.  Locally elected governing boards (“police juries”) hold broad home rule authority, but their authority is disbursed across both the legislative and administrative functions such that there is no strong local administrative officer (e.g., a county manager).  The result is that, in most parishes, the Sheriff is the elected official who exerts the most control over local functions.

 

In each parish, the Sheriff’s budget consists of funds garnered through local, state and federal revenue streams and interest earned on any unspent funds.  Though each local fund is audited annually and reported publicly by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, no one appears to analyze the audits to look broadly at how taxpayer resources are spent.  Because of this, each Sheriff’s account can accumulate significant reserve “rainy day” funds without taxpayer knowledge.

For example, at the close of fiscal year 2009, Louisiana Sheriffs collectively amassed $403,879,820 in unrestricted cash that went unspent and did not have to be returned to a state general fund.  This is an increase of nearly 30% over the last seven years (see Appendix L of NLADA's 2004 study of Avoyelles Parish, La.: Sheriffs collectively amassed $310M in FY 2002) -- a time that saw much of Louisiana catastrophically impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the nation suffer one of its worst financial crises in a century.  In FY 2009 alone, Louisiana Sheriffs collectively received $47,207,879 in Federal Assistance, principally through the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor does not require locally-hired accounting firms to provide a breakdown of the source of federal agency funding, so a complete breakdown of federal grants cannot be conducted from the publicly available information.  A few of the audits, however, give specific details on the federal money.  For example, the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff audit shows that the office received more than $4.2 million in Federal assistance in FY 2009:

1. U.S. Department of Justice: 2008 Justice Assistance Grants ($36,418); Forensic DNA Backlog Reduction Grant ($348,747); Domestic Violence Investigation ($52,746); Forensic Science Improvement ($36,240); Community Policing ($35,200); Human Trafficking ($15,953); and SALT ECVA ($18,034).

2. Executive Office of the President: Office of National Drug Policy – HIDTA Grant ($62,452).

3. U.S. Department of Transportation:  Highway Safety Grant ($28,446).

4. Department of Homeland Security:  Port Security ($1,363,328); Disaster Grant ($2,169,398); Buffer Zone Protection Plan ($72,297).

So in FY 2009, the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff took in $4.2 million in Federal Aid, while having more than $52.3 million dollars of unused, unrestricted money in the bank.  This represents an increase of more than 312% since FY 2002 ($12,699,214) in “rainy day” reserves -- Calcasieu Parish (Lake Charles) took much of the brunt of Hurricane Rita.

The Federal Government must require accounting for every dollar of criminal justice funding.  Preliminary findings by the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) suggest that the U.S. Department of Justice granted $1,131,324,577 to criminal justice agencies through their Byrne/JAG program alone.  Of that, $2,991,479 went to "public defense" or (0.26% -- about a quarter of one percent of all dollars) despite our nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder, naming as a national “crisis” the failure of our right to counsel systems to provide equal justice to the poor.