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Justice Department Veterans Warn Federal Money Could Have 'Strings Attached'

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about crime to local, state and federal law enforcement officials in St. Louis on March 31.
Jeff Roberson
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about crime to local, state and federal law enforcement officials in St. Louis on March 31.

The U.S. Justice Department is sending a message to state and local governments: Failure to comply with federal laws could have big consequences.

This year, most of the conversation has focused on whether sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities will be able to keep grant money for their police departments. But veterans of the Justice Department said that's only a piece of what could be at stake.

A little-noticed portion of a memo Attorney General Jeff Sessions signed on March 31 directed his deputies to review local and state compliance with "all federal laws."

"I think it's cause for concern," said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who now works with newly elected district attorneys and state attorneys. "With federal money moving forward, there could be the potential for federal strings to be attached."

The Justice Department review could have implications for cities and states that extend far beyond immigration. That includes marijuana enforcement, since the drug is legal in many states but remains illegal under federal law.

"This new directive really suggests that local and state prosecutors and law enforcement agencies should proceed with caution," Krinsky said. "They need to be careful at this point who they partner with or who they seek technical assistance or funding from."

The Sessions memo drew national attention for its pledge to strengthen relationships with local police — and its skepticism toward federal probes of police departments that engage in a "pattern or practice" of unconstitutional policing.

But the document also ordered Justice Department officials to consider a wide array of activity where local law enforcement relies on help from the federal government, including grants, technical assistance and training, and participation in task forces.

Those task forces bring local and federal authorities together to crack down on violent crime, human trafficking and terrorism. The partnerships facilitate sharing of information about crime trends and policing strategies.

Krinsky worries that those bonds could "start to crumble," hurting local communities.

Laurie Robinson, who ran the Justice Department's grant-making unit under President Barack Obama, said there's a big irony at work these days.

"For an administration that came to office with endorsement from the largest and the most important police union in the country, it would be ironic that the White House is now saying that they would cut back on grants that bring federal money to police departments," Robinson said.

It's not yet clear how strictly the new team at the Justice Department will interpret their new mandate. The two officials in charge of the review, the deputy attorney general and the associate attorney general, await Senate confirmation.

And Jeff Sessions has been noting in speeches and media appearances that restrictions on some grant money because of U.S. immigration law began last year, under the Obama administration.

Following pressure from Republicans in Congress, the Obama Justice Department adopted language requiring jurisdictions to certify they followed federal immigration law. But two sources familiar with the issue told NPR they found no evidence that states or cities lost federal funding during the Obama years as a result.

The outlook in the Trump Justice Department is unknown for now. But Sessions has taken a hard line in his public statements.

"If you're not cooperating with the federal government, you're going to lose grant money," Sessions recently told a Fox News host. "We're going to battle on them every step of the way. We're going to put pressure on these cities. And it's just important for America and the people in these cities."

Robinson, who served as an assistant attorney general, said there's not much private money available to support state and local law enforcement. The alternative, she says, is cutbacks in areas like training and innovation. And that, she said, would be "tragic."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.