Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Law enforcement grants, DWI and the fiscal cliff

As the feds approach the "fiscal cliff," media are beginning to look at the state-level implications. But one small element hasn't been much discussed: Federal grants to states for law enforcement. In particular, federal funds for Texas DWI grants were cut by 30% in 2011 - from $20 million to $14 million - and could be eliminated entirely if a budget deal isn't struck, or for that matter if the grants are eliminated as part of GOP-driven spending reductions being proposed in Congress. (The Obama Administration wants to increase spending on law enforcement grants, but the funds are part of the discretionary spending considered "on the table" in the fiscal cliff negotiations.) Reduced federal grant funds already contributed to a recent dip in the number of traffic stops initiated by Texas law enforcement. One wonders: What would be the effect on DWI enforcement if the remaining $14 million were cut?

DWI enforcement is as much about public relations as taking dangerous drivers off the street, as nearly everyone agrees that TV ads and public relations campaigns related to DWI have contributed at least as much as tougher penalties and strict enforcement to declining DWI death rates. So you get press events like the one described in this report from KUHF radio, announcing a federal grant to Harris County to coordinate:
Press conference announcing DWI grant via KUHF
a new DWI Task Force.  The group is administering a $295,000 TxDOT grant.  That money will help law enforcement in an eight-county area with enhanced DWI enforcement efforts.

Funds will be used during the Christmas holidays, and they'll also be used during summer holidays when people tend to drink a lot.

Kaufman says large police and sheriff's departments have had DWI enforcement grants for years, but the task force will allow smaller departments to conduct their own efforts.

"They might not have the numbers specifically to qualify.  Some of the administrative issues just make it a challenge in order to do the enforcement and administer the grant."

Much of the grant money will be used to pay for police overtime during the "no refusal" period.  That's when police get a search warrant to take a blood sample when a drunk driving suspect refuses to take a field sobriety test.

And in some places the enforcement effort goes even further.

Montgomery County prosecutor Warren Diepraam says they've even sent  uncover officers into bars to make sure customers aren't being overserved.
If federal grants for DWI enforcement go away, these sorts of activities would either a) cease, b) be paid for with local tax dollars or c) be covered by state budget writers, perhaps shifting funds from border security or the Governor's business incentive accounts. That last option seems the least likely. If grants for DWI enforcement were eliminated at the federal level, it wouldn't surprise me if state budget writers balked at funding routine local law enforcement activities, especially since some DWI grant funds have been misused. So, even as Houston-area authorities celebrate their latest grant, officials must also face the reality that those funds may not be available, certainly at such generous levels, in the near future.

Of course, DWI enforcement isn't the only criminal justice area where state spending could be affected by federal budget cuts. Certain specialty courts and other innovative programs have been funded through federal pass-through grants which have generally demonstrated excellent results, including for DWI. Local law enforcement has used federal grant funds for tons of equipment upgrades, vehicles and to purchase a variety of military-style gear. And most of Texas' border security spending relies on federal spending. (For that matter, cuts to the military would disproportionately affect Texas, too, because we have so many military bases.) If those federal dollars went away, it would leave hundreds of state and local officials scrambling to plug the gaps.

Between the fiscal cliff and Gov. Perry's insistence that the state won't accept new Medicaid funds, state and local government in Texas can expect a lot less benefit from federal spending for the rest of the decade than we've enjoyed in recent years. The complaints won't come until after the fact: Right now confusion about what's going on and gridlock surrounding Congressional debates makes discussion of specifics premature. But Grits suspects that the landscape surrounding federal law-enforcement grants is one of many things that could change dramatically as a result of the budget negotiations in Washington.


Anonymous said...

Maybe they should legalize and tax marijuana,reduce prison budgets,law enforcement man hours and collect taxes off a commodity that is going to be here regardless.

Anonymous said...

We should remind everyone that Montgomery County prosecutor Warren Diepraam's best friend and drinking buddy, and the former "toughest" DWI prosecutor, Lester Blizzard, was convicted of a DWI he received almost two-years ago tonight. And the only difference between a DWI and an Intoxicated Manslaughter charge is pure luck.

I often wonder if Diepramm would run if he hits someone while DWI. And my guess is he would if he thought his chances were fair he could get away.