Pot Matters: Obama’s Last Criminal Justice Budget


President Obama has sent his last budget request to Congress but has been unable to get it passed. The Republican Congress has its own priorities, especially in an election year, and the final budget for Fiscal Year 2017 (FY2017) will be negotiated throughout the coming months. The Obama FY2017 budget, though, reflects the White House’s thinking on a number of issues, especially drug policy and criminal justice reform.

As far as federal drug control funding is concerned the president has asked Congress for $31.07 billion to “reduce drug use and its consequences in the United States.”

That’s an increase of just half a billion dollars (only 1.67 percent) over FY2016. This funding request includes $13.68 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), $4.5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and $7.93 billion for the Department of Justice (DOJ). That’s a little bit more for the DHHS than its FY 2016 budget (which was $12.71 billion) and a bit less for both the DHS ($4.82 billion) and the DOJ ($8.03 billion).

As part of the DOJ budget, the request for DEA funding for FY2017 is $2.48 billion, just a little more than the $2.42 billion they received in the FY2016 budget deal. It seems that if the DEA needs more money, it will have to come out of the savings produced by the congressional ban on interfering with state medical marijuana laws.

The federal drug control budget affects 16 federal agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veteran’s Affairs. The Federal Judiciary and Court Services/Offender Supervision in Washington, D.C. are also included in the budget request. 

The rational for the budget is provided in the 2016 National Drug Control Strategy, which is described in the budget as “an evidence-based plan for real drug policy reform, spanning the spectrum of prevention, early intervention, treatment, recovery support, criminal justice reform, effective law enforcement, and international cooperation.”

It is notable that the President’s budget does not call for a more aggressive war on drugs but instead reform of the criminal justice system. The legalization of marijuana would result in a dramatic reform, but that’s a bit too bold for the Administration at this time in history.  On the other hand, the reforms proposed by the Administration are sensible and long overdue.

President Obama’s budget “proposes to accelerate criminal justice reform in the States, improve post-incarceration outcomes, remove barriers to reentry, support the enhancement of community policing practices across the Nation, support DOJ’s efforts to focus its resources on the most serious threats to public safety, and to strengthen trust between the brave men and women of law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

The administration is continuing a campaign against “excessive punishment and unnecessary incarceration,” and they want $5 billion in funding over the next 10 years to reduce violent crime, to reverse practices that have produced “unnecessary prison sentences and unnecessary incarceration," and to build community trust. 

Additional initiatives are proposed to reduce gun violence, including hiring more agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. More money has been requested for training and oversight of local police, including funding for more body cameras to monitor police interaction with the communities they protect and serve. Another priority is to improve post-incarceration outcomes, which includes efforts to reduce discrimination against released prisoners to make it easier for them to get gainful employment. Another program advanced by the president’s budget is for the review and reduction of the use of solitary confinement in prisons because of its detrimental effect on the mental health of prisoners.

This budget creates an impressive legacy for the president. 

It represents a choice of priorities for the nation’s criminal justice system, a choice of reform and service over asserting authority, increasing arrests and a reliance on incarceration.

It also represents another choice, between renewing the drug war or reforming the justice system.

This administration has chosen reform. 

That’s good for the nation and, in the long run, good for drug policy reform—and even better for efforts to legalize cannabis in the United States. Because, after all, if the policy goal is to end “unnecessary prison sentences and unnecessary incarceration,” then legalizing cannabis and continuing on with drug policy reform is a very effective means to achieve this objective.

(Photo Courtesy of Politico)


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