Pay-as-you-go justice

Pretty much everything the government does costs money. Some things it does also raise money. The danger comes when priorities are set to favor government functions that raise money over those that do not.

That’s starkly evident in a debate now rippling beyond Sacramento and into the real life of California law enforcement. Some functions of the state Justice Department enjoy their own sources of revenue. Enforcement of gambling laws, for instance, is partly paid for by skimming money off Indian gambling revenues. Efforts to combat healthcare fraud are subsidized by the federal government, and enforcement of California gun laws is underwritten, in part, by money from firearms licenses.

By contrast, the special units of the Justice Department that run multi-jurisdictional investigations and that enforce narcotics laws get their money from the state’s general fund. The result: Those units are in effect being eliminated as part of a $71-million cut in funding to the department, while enforcement of gambling and gun laws goes ahead. It would be one thing if that were the result of considered evaluation by the attorney general and her deputies, who had reluctantly come to the conclusion that California could no longer afford those units and that the state had to concentrate on the more compelling problem of, say, enforcing gambling laws. Some might agree or disagree with those priorities, but at least the officials entrusted with making such decisions would be making them to the best of their ability.

In this case, however, Gov. Jerry Brown has targeted these particular bureaus, and a broken financing system is forcing cuts at the top, rather than the bottom, of the Justice Department’s priority list. And these are not abstract cuts. Already, the department has withdrawn agents from 34 task forces statewide that enforce gang and drug laws; it has managed to keep another 18 open using federal money, but the rest will have to go about their business without the coordination and contribution of California’s largest law enforcement agency. That’s allowing a bad funding mechanism to determine which law enforcement priorities are addressed and which are eliminated.


Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris gets it. “This is going to have impact,” she said last week. Harris is prepared to cut her budget to help the state through its fiscal crisis; she should have the authority to make those cuts where she thinks they will do the least harm.

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