almost cursed. Governor Perry canceled funding for the state's network of regional drug task forces after the scandals Balko mentioned, shifting most of the money instead to border security grants to South Texas Sheriffs (one of whom, ironically, was allegedly on the payroll of the Mexican Gulf Cartel).
President-Elect Obama’s stimulus package calls for $3 billion in new Byrne Grants, and $1 billion in COPS grants—both are federal block grant programs for local police departments. For some reason, Democrats seem to love these grants. The Bush administration and Republicans in Congress had begun phasing them out.
As I explained in a piece for Slate last October, studies have shown both programs to be ineffective at fighting crime. Worse, there’s good evidence that they actually cause harm. While designated for community policing efforts, COPS grants have actually been used by many departments to start or outfit SWAT teams, a point I explicitly made in July 2007 to Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), when I testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime he chairs. Scott seemed surprised when I told him. But apparently, it didn’t affect him enough to prevent him from restarting the program.
Byrne Grants, meanwhile, are often tied directly to drug arrests, warping police department priorities by encouraging low-level drug busts to juke up department arrest statistics . . . so they can apply for more grants. We have Byrne grants to thank for the civil rights disasters in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, and for the continuing problem of out of control multijurisdictional drug task forces.
But there's a more important, pragmatic reason Byrne grants shouldn't be part of a "stimulus" package: Law enforcement spending doesn't provide the dramatic economic multiplier effects as do other government of expenditures like health care or education.
When the state funds more low-level drug enforcement by regional task forces, for example, a few officers may be employed, a few new vehicles purchased, etc.. But when arrests are made it actually takes money out of the economy and puts potential workers (and taxpayers) 100% on the state's dole - Texas state prisoners cost taxpayers nearly $18,000 per year per inmate.
By comparison, say the feds were to pick up half the tab for the state's Medicaid or CHIP expenses. The feds already match the state's Medicaid contribution by about 2-1 (more for CHIP), so paying half the state's share would mean we get a 4-1 return on our investment or higher, plus more people get health care. Instead of hiring cops and jailers to remove workers from employment, expanding health care increases employment in health care services, products, etc., which increases the multiplier effect even more.
If the feds wants to invest in jobs programs, cops and prisons have a relatively small economic multiplier effect (see this report from the Sentencing Project) while other investments - in education, healthcare, and transportation infrastructure, for example - will give much more job-producing bang for the buck.
Unlike Balko, I'm actually more or less a Keynesian; I believe in the idea behind the stimulus package, including assistance to states. But Byrne grants aren't good stimulus. They should only be debated on the law enforcement merits (and on those, they should be rejected). They're by far among the worst available options for boosting the economy.
RELATED (Updated 1/17): While we're on the subject of the incoming president's economic policies, I noticed Obama has floated the name of a new chief of the Ex-Im Bank, Fred Hochberg, who has mostly garnered attention because he would be Obama's first openly gay appointee. Whoever is the new head of the Ex-Im Bank, they need to revisit the inadequate due diligence policies installed by their predecessor after the agency gave loans to fake companies associated with the bloody Juarez cartel. We've seen a few media reports and one arrest, but I'm convinced that's only the tip of the iceberg.
Ironically, the man who oversaw the Ex-Im Bank when those loans were made, and whose decision it was to not require more thorough vetting, was later appointed by President Bush as Chief Investment Officer of the Troubled Asset Relief Fund. Personally I'd prefer the new president put somebody in that slot who's a little more keen on preventing fraud.