Civil rights groups press Congress about proposed $1.1 billion cut
Civil rights groups are asking members of Congress to press the deputy attorney general on Tuesday regarding funding priorities at the Justice Department as President Trump’s budget calls for a $1.1 billion cut to the agency.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will testify Tuesday before House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees on the department’s fiscal 2018 budget. It calls for $27.7 billion — a 3.8 percent cut from fiscal 2017 — with increased funding for more prosecutors and immigration judges.
Vanita Gupta, the Obama-era chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a conference call with reporters Monday that the new budget priorities come at the expense of minorities and the division.
“The federal budget isn’t just about spending money,” Ms. Gupta said. “It’s a statement really on what we, the nation, believes we should be investing in, and investment in enforcing civil rights will ensure that every person in this country can live a life that is free from discrimination and with a decent shot at the American dream.”
Ms. Gupta, who now serves as president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, moderated the conference call, which included five other experts on civil rights law, immigration and drug policy.
She criticized the proposed $26 million for 300 new prosecutors targeting illegal immigration and violent crime and the $75 million for 75 more immigration judge teams. Another $84 million would provide for increases in the federal prison population, and $103 million to fight against opioids and illicit drugs.
“In tomorrow’s hearing,” Ms. Gupta said, “Congress must demand that the deputy attorney general explain how the department intends to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws, and explain why this administration is proposing to spend the people’s tax dollars on criminalizing more black and brown people.”
Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the $10 million for expected prison population growth proves the Justice Department knows its policies will result in greater racial inequality.
“The Department of Justice knows exactly what will come from its decision to return to the outdated war on drugs and policies that do nothing to improve public safety while widening racial inequities and increasing the prison population,” she said.
Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called the $64 million increase for the Drug Enforcement Administration a “reckless escalation of the war on drugs.” He said it is unpopular with the public, a waste of taxpayer dollars and a losing proposition.
“This budget is a major step back in terms of dealing with the current opioid crisis,” Mr. Collins said. “Nearly five decades of the drug war indicate increasing funding for law enforcement failed to reduce neither the supply nor the demand of drugs and only make the drug crisis problem worse.”
Ms. Nelson said the $538 million cut — or 29.3 percent — to the Office of Justice Programs is “especially troubling” as it includes funding cuts for police body cameras, school safety initiatives, drug courts and reentry programs.
Kamal Essaheb, director of policy and advocacy for the National Immigration Law Center, said Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a history of pursuing “antiimmigrant” policies.
Mr. Sessions was supposed to testify on Tuesday before Congress’ Appropriations subcommittees, but Mr. Rosenstein will take Mr. Sessions’ place while he testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his contact with Russian officials during the 2016 election campaign.
“These questions [on Mr. Sessions and Russia] can’t be a distraction from the important work that the Justice Department should be doing, and what it is failing to do, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ leadership,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Ms. Clarke also criticized Mr. Sessions’ decision in February to withdraw the department’s claim in court that Texas’ controversial voter ID law was enacted with discriminatory intent.
“This … administration have continued to demonstrate in words and deeds an intent to undermine civil rights,” Ms. Gupta said.
Ms. Nelson said the Civil Rights Division will get a “token increase” of $168,000 while 121 employees would be cut, including 14 attorneys, calling the budget an “abandonment of civil rights laws.”