How government money fueled the explosion in arrests for petty crimes


The rate of arrests in the U.S. for minor offenses—including vandalism, disorderly conduct, and vagrancy—has increased by 20% over the past 30-plus years, according to a Fusion analysis of FBI arrest data. The phenomenon has been fueled largely by the war on drugs, the shift toward broken windows policing, and toughoncrime laws of the 80s and 90s that put more cops on the beat around the country. And it’s one reason the U.S. prison population has exploded by nearly 800 percent since 1980.

But there’s another major factor behind the jump in arrests for minor crimes: a federal criminal justice grant that “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander calls one of the “worst federal drug programs of the Clinton era.” Created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program is the largest of dozens of such grants that subsidize state and local law enforcement agencies.

Worth $376 million in 2015, the Byrne grant is administered by the Justice Department (DOJ) and is awarded based on a state’s population and level of violent crime. States and localities can choose to spend the money on a wide variety of criminal justice programs, from law enforcement to prosecution to education and drug treatment, but most of it ends up going to policing.

Until last year, in order to ensure agencies met certain performance measures, the DOJ asked grant recipients to report the number of arrests they made each year. Criminal justice reform advocates say that this decades-long focus on volume—rather than on reducing crime or incarceration—encouraged police departments to prioritize making more arrests. The Byrne grant also has motivated police to focus on “easier to make low-level arrests,” the authors of a 2013 Brennan Center report noted. “It is not surprising that states, strapped for cash, will clamor for federal funding and reorient their priorities to obtain it.”

With the largest share of Byrne funding going to drug and gang enforcement, the program has had a huge impact, in particular, on the rise in arrests for low-level drug offenses and the targeting of communities of color by police, according to a 2013 report by the ACLU.

And even though the DOJ no longer includes number of arrests in its Byrne performance measures, advocates fear that inertia will keep police departments focused on volume. “If you have law enforcement engaged in this culture where if you’re not making lots of arrests you aren’t doing your job,” says Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the ACLU. “I don’t know if removing that question alone is going to result in the change that we want to see.”

This content was made possible in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation and produced independently by Fusion’s editorial staff. To find out more, explore our interactive map and read more of our coverage of America’s dysfunctional system of policing.

Erika Eichelberger is an independent journalist and a former staff reporter at Mother Jones. She is based in New York.

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