Donald Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has repeatedly criticized the decrease in federal prosecutions for gun and drug crimes, and has promised “this trend will end”. But the budget proposed by the president on Thursday relies upon savings from the declining federal prison population inherited from Barack Obama to help cut the Department of Justice’s funding to $27.7bn, while increasing funding to speed deportations.
The budget blueprint includes $1.1bn in cuts to what it calls “program level” funding at the justice department, a 3.8% decrease. This is a modest reduction compared with drastic cuts to funding for other departments, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the state department.
It notes that a roughly 14% decrease in the prison population since 2013 “achieves savings of almost a billion dollars … in Federal prison construction spending”.
Those proposed savings come after concerted effort by Obama’s justice department, including shifts in how federal prosecutors were directed to approach mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent, low-level drug offenders.
Reducing the number of offenders who are sent to federal prisons – an approach that the Obama administration argued brought both financial benefits and would make communities safer – is not the priority of Trump’s attorney general.
Instead, he has promised more prosecutions.
“At the end of 2015 there were more than 7% fewer federal gun prosecutions than five years before,” Sessions said in a speech to the Association of Attorneys General in February. “In that same five-year period, federal drug prosecutions declined by 18%. Under my leadership at the Department of Justice, this trend will end.”
While slashing $700m in unspecified DoJ programs, Trump’s plan – better viewed as a wishlist or opening negotiating position with Congress, which will draw up the eventual federal budget – would bolster his efforts to deport more people.
His Department of Homeland Security budget requests $1.5bn in additional funding “for expanded detention, transportation, and removal of illegal immigrants”. It also asks for $314m to hire 500 new border patrol and 1,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents and staff.
The justice department blueprint asks for an additional $80m to hire 75 more immigration judge teams to speed up the removal proceedings, as well as an unspecified amount for 60 additional border endorsement prosecutors and 30 deputy US marshals “for the apprehension, transportation, and prosecution of criminal aliens”.
The budget also asks for 20 attorneys focused on “Federal efforts to obtain the land and holdings necessary to secure the Southwest border”, and another 20 attorneys and support staff “for immigration litigation assistance”.
At the same time, the budget seeks cuts of $200m in federal funding largely paid out to reimburse states for “incarcerating certain illegal criminal aliens”, a move perhaps in line with the budget’s larger principle of slashing federal funding and asking states to fill in the gaps. Obama also tried to completely cut funding for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, but champions in Congress have defended it.
In all, Trump pledged to cut $700m in “unnecessary” spending on unspecified DoJ programs that he deemed have “either have met their goal or have exceeded their usefulness”. What these programs will be is not yet clear: the budget does pledge to retain funding for certain grant programs aimed at preventing violence against local law enforcement officials, including a longstanding partnership that helps state and local agencies purchase bulletproof vests for their officers.
The FBI is also a winner in the president’s budget blueprint, with a requested $249m, or 3%, budget increase. The budget also allocates $175m “to target the worst of the worst criminal organizations and drug traffickers”.
While the budget requests money to fulfill Trump’s promise of building a wall between the US and Mexico, the budget asks for a similar sum to protect “cyberspace”.
Amid outrage over Russia’s interference in the US election, the Department of Homeland Security budget asks for $1.5bn for “more assertive defense of government networks” and “a suite of advanced cyber security tools” and says this request “safeguards cyberspace”.
“Throwing billions at defense while ransacking America’s investments in jobs, education, clean energy and lifesaving medical research will leave our nation weakened,” the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, said in a statement on Thursday. “America’s strength depends on more than military spending; it depends on the power of our diplomacy, the health of our economy and the vitality of our communities.”