yearly budget is an integral step in the administration of the criminal justice system in the United States. The budget is the source of funding for all programs and agencies administered through the Justice Department and the success or failure of such programs is dependent upon the budgetary process. This paper will assess how public policy affects the budgetary process and how each the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. Government treat policy in making decisions regarding how the budget is organized.
The recent history of the budget process and its effects on the criminal justice system in the United States is examined. Part of this examination includes an explanation as to reasons for why the criminal justice system has failed in recent years to accurately reflect public policy and suggestions as to how changes in the budgetary process might alter the path and direction of the nation's criminal justice system.
The process of preparing a budget for the federal criminal justice system begins with an examination of the generalized policies underlying the operation of the system. Such policies span a variety of issues including correctional planning, overall program evaluation, how to address possible jail overcrowding, treatment of prisoners, staff morale, and allocation of resources. Hopefully, each of these policies issues should be supported with sufficient data to enable the policy decision makers to be able to adequately understand the problems facing the system and how the system should adjust to address these problems (Brennan, 2001). In all justice systems there must be a careful balancing of the needs and goals and the available funding but this is particularly true in the federal system due to its size and complexity. There is never an unending source of funding and the federal criminal justice system must be careful to accomplish as much as it can within the limits set by taxpayers.
There is increasing pressure being applied against administrators and policy makers involved in the public arena. The source of these pressures comes from a variety of locations in and outside the justice system. The focus of these pressures is on the expenditure of funds, the attainment and proper selection of policy, and the achievement of prior goals. Against these pressures administrators and policy makers must possess the necessary data to forestall any criticism.
Needless to say, the U.S. Congress is heavily involved in the justice system's budgetary process (U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1993). It is Congress that enacts the necessary revenue producing bills and laws that determine how the different departments and agencies within the criminal justice system operate. New and pre-existing revenue sources place increasing demands upon administrators and policy decision makers to provide Congress with documentation relative to the operation of the criminal justice system's various agencies. This scrutiny is caused by public concern over accountability and the collateral concern over what seem like ever increasing costs. Against this background, administrators and policy makers must still find a way to operate a viable system.
Making a determination as to the proper allocation of funds can be a frustrating and contentious process. The needs of the different segments of the system are too often seen as being in conflict with each other and the budget process is seen as a competition between said segments for the available funds. Each agency of the criminal justice system is concerned with accountability and maintaining the funding viewed as being necessary for achieving the public's demands. Additionally, the different agencies often fail to appreciate the goals and responsibilities of the other agencies and this creates misperceptions and misunderstandings. These misunderstandings and misconceptions can create tensions between the agencies that become the responsibility of the administrators and policy makers to resolve or minimize. The failure of such individuals to properly handle such situation can cause a severe breakdown in the process and the entire system suffers.
The inherent nature of the criminal justice systems creates some problems for the budgetary process. Traditionally, certain parts of the system, specifically the judicial, prosecutor, police and correction portions of the system are conservative in philosophy while others, such as the public defenders' office and probation departments are more liberal in outlook. The conservative segments of the justice system are rigid in their views and decisions and are reluctant to accept change or correction even when there is overwhelming evidence of such need. Meanwhile, the public defender / probation agencies may be constantly seeking and advocating change. This dichotomy can be the source of considerable controversy and it is imperative that the administrators responsible for balancing the respective concerns of both side of the spectrum find a way to satisfy all concerned agencies regardless of their philosophical orientation.
The actual preparation of the federal budget begins with the office of the President. The President is required by law to formally prepare a yearly budget that provides for how much money the federal government should spend on public purposes; how much the government should take in as tax revenues; and, whether or not the proposed spending and revenue gathering will result in a deficit or surplus. In most years the budget proposed by the President results in a deficit and the government is forced to borrow in order to fully fund its programs.
The budget that is submitted to Congress by the President is very specific relative to each agency and it outlines the precise funding levels for each program and department operated through each agency. It is through this process of establishing individual agencies that the executive department imparts its policy decisions.
Once the President's proposed budget is submitted to Congress it becomes the responsibility of Congress to review and consider the President's proposals and enact the necessary legislation to provide the funding for the budget that is ultimately approved. Approval, however, can be quite acrimonious and usually involves a significant degree of give and take between the President's office, the various agencies involved, and the respective Houses of Congress. Through this process of preparation, review and discussion the federal government determines how much money to spend, what to spend it on, and how the money is to be raised to allow the spending.
In preparing the federal budget consideration is afforded not only the current needs of the agencies but future needs and past expenditures are considered as well. Doing so allows the decision makers to draw on the experience of past budgets and evaluate how effectively each specific agency utilized the funding that was allocated to it. Collaterally, the future needs of each agency are also considered in order to allow the government to plan for what the financial needs of each agency might be in the future.
Although the process of budget presentation, review and approval may seem to be rather straight forward, it is actually a complicated process that involves various levels and the input of wide variety of individuals and agencies. Budget preparation is an ongoing process that never ends for most federal agencies including those involved in the federal criminal justice system. Each agency within the federal criminal justice system prepares its own budget under the guidelines remitted by the Office of Management and Budget and forwards its budgetary needs to the President for incorporation within the overall federal budget.
The preparation of each agency's budgetary needs, however, is not an easy and straightforward process. The crunching of numbers is only a small part of the process and probably the easiest part of the process. What are more significant and more problematic are the public policy considerations that underlie the preparation of each agency's budget. As indicated earlier, each agency competes for the limited dollars that are available and policy plays a key role in determining what each agency receives in the way of funding.
Although not everyone might agree as to the whether it is a good thing or bad thing, the percentage of the U.S. budget that has been apportioned toward criminal justice has increased exponentially over the past thirty years, however, where the funding is actually allocated has varied. This fact demonstrates the importance of policy in the preparation of an agency's budget. Throughout this thirty year period the policies of the different Presidential administrations have had a profound effect on where and how public funds are spent. For example, during one administration increased use of incarceration may be a priority so that increased funding might be provided to the federal corrections program while another administration may opt to pursue another course of action and the federal correction programs will find their funding decreased. This is a process that is repeated annually as the federal government prepares its budget but the policy considerations of the sitting President and his administration are only one part of the budgetary process (Office of Management and Budget, 2008). The same negotiations that take place as the agencies prepare their budget proposals are repeated once the President's budget proposal reaches Congress.