Justice Department prepares for public-safety grants

The Office of Justice Programs is among the biggest grant-making operations in the federal government. It administers $5 billion in grants to several agencies.

The Office of Justice Programs is among the biggest grant-making operations in the federal government. Each year, through several program channels, it administers some $5 billion in grants to a variety of organizations, starting with local police departments. For some details,  The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to Assistant Attorney General Amy Solomon.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Let’s begin with just a topical question, then we’ll get into some of the details here. The appropriations for the Justice Department just came in with that first round that Congress got around to passing. So we’re halfway through the fiscal year. Does that make it harder to administer and make $5 billion worth of grants?

Amy Solomon Well, it certainly would be easier if we had a budget in appropriations at the beginning of the year would be helpful for our planning, of course. But we’ve gotten used to administering our grants with budgets that come later in the year. And so we have to make some assumptions. So we put out most of our solicitations, we make some assumptions about funding levels, and we put in asterisks in those solicitations to let folks know that the actual funding levels will, of course, be dependent on appropriations. We have a good number of our solicitations out right now, and we’ll put the rest out over the coming weeks and months.

Tom Temin So a lot of the approval and say so that, yes, this would be a worthy grant you can do ahead of time, even before the money is ready to send them the money.

Amy Solomon Well, we have some predictability about the types of grants that we’re going to award because of our legacy programs, which tend to continue. The amounts may change. So again, we make some assumptions. We start the process because we couldn’t afford to wait until we actually have a budget. But we don’t make the awards, of course, until we have approvals from Congress in our budget in hand.

Tom Temin Yes. You don’t want to prosecute yourself for ante deficiency or something like that if that were to happen.  And you have been in the Justice Department a couple of rounds here. Are you an attorney or are you a grant person, or how do you come to this particular line as assistant attorney general?

Amy Solomon Yeah. Thanks, Tom. So I am not a lawyer. I’m a policy person and I’m a criminal justice person. I’ve been at OJP three times. I was here as a young presidential management intern in the late 90s under Janet Reno, working at the National Institute of Justice. A starry eyed about all that promised in this field. I came back for seven of the eight Obama-Biden years and was the director of policy here at the Office of Justice Programs. And also ran the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which had 20 federal agencies working together to improve reentry outcomes for people leaving prison in jail. So this is my third time back. I came in spring of ’21. And I am odd, really odd, by the career public servants who have expertise and passion for making our community safe.

Tom Temin All right, so getting to these OJP programs, there are several channels. Give us an overview of the way the whole $5 billion actually gets out there.

Amy Solomon So we have an overarching mission that’s focused on leveraging the resources we have. So that’s grant funding, it’s also technical assistance, it’s research, it’s statistics, it’s guidance, it’s convenings. All the tools that we have in our toolbox, we are trying to get them to communities and jurisdictions to help them keep their communities safe. So our overarching mission here is around advancing public safety, building community trust, and also strengthening the community’s role as co-producer and public safety along with the justice system. So we have six program offices at OJP, at the Office of Justice Programs that are all focused on the gamut of issues from prevention and youth issues to all of the adult sectors, to addressing services for victims of crime. Again, we housed the research arm of the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Justice, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. So through these grantmaking offices is how we make our wards.

Tom Temin You’re almost like an NIH for justice, if you will, all these different ways of getting things out for the particulars. And I wanted to ask you just about police departments, because they have really been in a, let’s say, seesaw, of politics outside of their control, just the way the nation has gone back and forth on certain issues. And so many police departments find themselves under-resourced. They don’t have enough people. What are you hearing in terms of demand signals from that particular sector for grants? What are their concerns these days?

Amy Solomon First, let me say that while we are the largest grant making office at the Department of Justice, we have two sister grantmaking offices, and one is the Cops office that really focuses on bringing resources to more police departments to help them both fill their ranks and do their work in the communities to keep communities safe. So we too have grants and resources focused on helping law enforcement. Their safety, their wellness, their training. And we know that recruitment and retention, for example, is a huge issue for law enforcement across the country. And so we have tried to develop resources and strategies that we hope will be helpful to them during this difficult time. You could see in the president’s budget, there are a lot of resources being proposed to help law enforcement right now.

Tom Temin And with respect to I wanted to ask you also about the victims assistance programs. We’ve covered that over the years. And what are the trends there? What are the priorities that the grants are trying to serve in that particular area?

Amy Solomon One of our central priorities is to expand access to resources, to services and equity, to serve all victims of crime. And one issue, with the Crime Victims Fund, which is a fund that helps provide victim services and compensation to states and then to victims in every state and territory. It is fluctuated over the years, in terms of the amount that has gone into it. So we are really trying to shore that up so that we can provide stable, predictable resources at a significant level for victims of crime. And that’s something that you saw in our ’25 budget request.

Tom Temin And I don’t know quite how to ask this question, but if you look at any given jurisdiction, there is always a balance between criminal justice, law enforcement, the administration of prosecutorial and defense capabilities. This is a tense there’s deliberately tension in the system. Do the grant allocations try to support that kind of balance among competing interests, if you will, for lack of a better word, in the whole criminal justice complex in a given area. Does that change from year to year or how does that all work?

Amy Solomon Simply put, our focus is on getting resources to communities and jurisdictions to help keep them safe. And no matter where you sit in the system, what part of the system you work in, no matter where you sit on the political spectrum, we all care about neighborhoods that where children can play, where people feel safe. And so what we are trying to do is to get resources to the places where they’re needed most, where we’re authorized to do so. And that includes not only all of the law enforcement sectors that you were referencing, but also community based organizations who can work in partnership with law enforcement and justice system actors to help keep their community safe. Just to give one example where we’re really leaning in there, community violence intervention is an effort that the president, the Hill, and certainly the Department of Justice are leaning into. And this is one of those areas where we have resources for the first time, starting a couple of years ago, $100 million a year to invest in communities, to help community groups work with the justice system, actors and law enforcement to focus on the highest risk people in the highest risk neighborhoods to disrupt cycles of violence, use credible messengers to reach people and bring them back into places where they can expand opportunities and keep communities safe. And this is a network, an ecosystem we’re trying to build that we really think will help be a protective factor in communities that are hard hit.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Amy Solomon. She’s assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs. And as you get further and further from governmental organizations and the community organizations and so on, what are the mechanisms you have to make sure that you can oversee the grants properly? That’s kind of the underside of grant making. But nevertheless, we’ve seen some bad outcomes from time to time.

Amy Solomon We have a lot of experience here. And it really starts on the front end with, making the grant decisions. And I will say, from where I sit, I’m so impressed by all of the factors and considerations that go into that process. So when we get grant applications, which are many more than we can find, we are reviewing for basic minimum requirements. Then we’re sending to expert, independent peer reviewers to really grapple with the subject matter expertise to put recommendations into our career staff who are then trying to balance against geographic distribution, strategic priorities and other factors before making these decisions and looking for risk. Looking for risk factors for past performance. And then when grants are made, it comes along with a lot of training, with monitoring, with performance metrics. And our teams who are managing these grants are really working across the board from the beginning of when the grants are made throughout the life cycle of the grant to communicate with the grantees, to do desk reviews, to do site visits on occasion, to look for any risk flags to make sure they’re making progress. And we’re actually trying to provide a lot of proactive tools and technical assistance, because we all want to see the grantees succeed.

Tom Temin And do you have a mechanism for making sure that there’s not duplication? You could find probably areas from Homeland Security grants, for example, that might touch on areas that the OJP is touching on. Maybe not precisely the same, but you also don’t want to have duplicative money going for the same purpose locally.

Amy Solomon That’s right. We do that analysis across the department and the government every year and have an internal report that actually looks for that.

Tom Temin All right. And just a final question. You’ve been around Washington a little bit. And the members of the Hill that you referenced earlier have their different priorities, some of them maybe towards law enforcement, some more towards justice related programs, some more towards victims. Does it all come out in the wash so that the Justice Department averages what it needs to do, in its view, to make sure that all of the priorities get the funding levels they need?

Amy Solomon I hope so. I can tell you that again, in this area, there are many, many areas of bipartisan support and bipartisan agreement about what’s important. And so we are really trying to lean into those so that we can provide resources in the victim services area, reducing gun violence. We’re very supportive in implementing the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which was enacted in ’22. There are lots of places where we are coming together, because we know it’s important to the field in our communities.


Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories