A conservative senator blasted a Justice Department crime-prevention program this week, portraying it as a waste of taxpayer dollars undermining the department’s core mission. Senator Tom Coburn released a 42-page report documenting in lurid detail recreation activities funded via DOJ grants. I use “lurid” here liberally, since we’re talking about bowling, dancing, and skateboarding, not drug use, illicit sex, or a night out at a lesbian bondage club. Lady Justice graces the report’s cover, holding, in the same hand as her scales, a bunch of multi-colored balloons floating on a string.
Titled “Party at the DOJ,” the report features findings from a Government Accountability Office study heavily larded with bits from local newspaper stories, a mix apparently aimed at exciting the outrage centers of the American brain. “With our nation facing the heightened threats of domestic terrorism and unprecedented debt and financial challenges,” the report says, “taxpayers should be shocked to learn DOJ crime prevention grant programs are paying for parties and rollercoaster rides for children rather than focusing on investigating crimes, locating and prosecuting terrorists, and administering justice.” Coburn’s report hazards a guess that DOJ has spent $100 million over the past five years on frivolities at the expense of public safety and national solvency.
Coburn’s ire is directed primarily at DOJ’s Weed and Seed program, which hands out grants targeted at cleaning up high-crime neighborhoods. The funds go to police and prosecutors to weed out gangs, addicts, and thugs, and to private community groups to then seed the area with social services, from treatment programs to youth centers. Sometimes the seeding involves community activities like dances and block parties.
Coburn’s report, citing the GAO study, recommends DOJ should require weed and seed programs to keep better track of the money they receive. To inflate this important, if quotidian, point into an indictment against recreation events on the taxpayer dime, the report spikes facts with an ample dose of truthiness.
Let’s look at that $100 million figure. Sounds impressive, but how did the report arrive at that figure? By lumping the Weed and Seed’s relatively modest budget ($25 million) together with the entire budget the much larger Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program ($453 million), and then making a guess. “If the total amount spent on parties and other fun activities is only a small percentage of the $478 million combined Weed and Seed and OJJDP budgets, tens of millions of crime prevention dollars are being spent on parties and other recreational activities with little or no measurable impact whatsoever on crime every year,” the report says. “Over a five year period, this could amount to well over $100 million, yet it is impossible to know for sure.”
This $100 million guess was then repeated as an estimate – without reference to its less-than stringent methodology – in reports by CBS News, Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government site and the Washington Examiner. The Legal Times covered Coburn’s report on its blog, but did not mention the alleged $100 million figure. Being a journalistic enterprise in accuracy more than agitprop, it also tested some of the report’s claims.
One of the recreational events portrayed in Coburn’s report as a trivial waste was a luau thrown by East Chattanooga Weed and Seed. The program’s site director, Vivian Hixon, told the Legal Times the event, intended for children, was staffed by volunteers and paid for with private donations.
“This is not some luau party like he’s making it sound,” Hixson said. She added that Coburn’s office did not contact her before issuing its report. “I wish that we had been asked,” she said, “because I think that we could have cleared this up very easily.”
Told of the Chattanooga program’s response, Coburn spokesman John Hart wrote in an e-mail: “In many of these cases, it comes down to a question of whether the funds in question are fungible. Also, because DOJ does not track the funds, it is difficult to pin this down.”
The report also complains about the lack of examination into the effectiveness of recreational activities. But it’s not like Weed and Seed programs haven’t been studied. Research tends to concentrate on the forest, primarily how the weeding and seeding programs impact things like crime rates and perceptions of safety, rather than the trees, like the effect of a block party or carnival. Granted, there’s a concrete example of Weed and Seed funds being misused in Coburn’s home state of Oklahoma, but in the absence of data on recreation activities, the report simply assumes money spent on that (which it assumes is $100 million) is by definition a waste.
Coburn has earned a reputation as an anti-pork crusader and, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, DOJ programs fall under his purview. (He tried and failed to eliminate the funding for Weed and Seed back in early 2009.) I suppose his willingness to employ what Stephen Colbert would call “truth that comes from the gut” in this report is a sign of his enthusiasm for controlling government spending. It’s a shame he doesn’t have a seat on the appropriations committee, where he’d get a crack at a lot bigger fish than a program to improve high-crime neighborhoods.