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No Money for Prisons?

Probably the principal argument for the hilariously named "Smarter Sentencing Act," passed last week out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is that we simply do not have the money in the federal budget to accommodate the influx of prisoners under present mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.

The argument is a fraud.  First and most obviously, the government, especially under this administration, has never failed to find the money for a program in actually cares about.  It finds the money the old fashioned way, by borrowing it. Since Obama became President, we've borrowed  --  what?  --  six trillion more bucks?

For this Congress and this administration to claim the desperate need for frugality gives hypocrisy a bad name.  Of course, there is a desperate need for frugality, don't get me wrong.  It's just that those whose votes passed the SSA don't believe in it one little bit.

The proof is in the pudding.
The pudding consists, not just of the unlimited willingness to borrow for favored programs, but of the sequester relief bill passed last month.

One of the very few, if microscopically small, attempted restraints on federal spending was the sequester.  Several weeks ago, Congress passed a bill easing sequester spending limits for a variety of agencies and programs, the Bureau of Prisons conspicuously not among them.

One federal justice program was among them, however, as I found out this morning from my friendly adversaries at The Constitution Project.  The Project put out this bulletin:

On January 13, House and Senate negotiators unveiled an agreement for funding the federal government for the remainder of FY 2014.  As part of that agreement, the federal defender program, which faced devastating cuts in 2013 and expected even greater cuts this year, received a boost in funding well above the levels imposed by sequestration. This represents the successful culmination of months of advocacy led by TCP and federal defenders, with the help of private attorneys and a broad coalition of advocacy organizations.


The $1.044 billion in funding provided to federal defenders should help prevent further furloughs, could allow some federal defender offices to hire staff, and should allow reimbursement rates for court-appointed counsel to return to 2013 levels.  In the coming weeks, the Judicial Conference-which oversees the federal defender program-will make critical decisions about how this funding will be used.  The precise impact of this funding depends on those decisions, including how the money will be divided among individual federal defender offices.

On the merits, this is a good idea.  Increasing funding for federal defenders is something I have supported for years.  They are overburdened and do a professional job. The point is that, if Congress can see the need to increase the funding for defense lawyers, it's just very curious that it can't see the need to increase funding for keeping criminals off the street (and out of your neighborhood).

As I say, the fiscal argument for the SSA is a fraud.

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