U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

President Obama’s proposed 2015 budget would boost criminal justice reforms and authorize the hiring of dozens of civil rights and immigration lawyers, while also increasing support for the federal courts, the nation’s civil legal aid providers and enforcement activities at federal regulatory agencies.

The U.S. Department of Justice would receive $27.4 billion in the budget year that starts on Oct. 1, including an additional $173 million for state and local prisoner re-entry programs, a key part of a “Smart on Crime” initiative Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. first announced in August.

“Each dollar spent on prevention and re-entry has the potential to save several dollars in incarceration costs,” Holder said on March 4, as the president unveiled his spending plan. “These wise investments can help make our criminal justice system more effective and efficient.”

The White House proposal kicked off budget season on Capitol Hill, where agency and judicial officials are set to ­testify before appropriations committees this month. Congres­sional Republicans have made it clear that Obama won’t get everything he wants. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) characterized the budget rollout as “a ­campaign brochure.”

The White House recommended the following:

Several divisions in the Justice Department would receive additional attorneys. The Civil Rights Division would add 36 lawyers as part of a $7.6 million increase for enforcement of federal laws touching on human trafficking, hate crimes, police misconduct, fair housing and voting. The division would have a total budget of $273 million. The department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review would gain 53 attorneys, part of a $23 million increase to $2.9 billion to support immigration law enforcement.

For the federal judiciary, Obama would increase discretionary spending by $220 million — a 3.4 percent increase over the 2014 budget, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said in a written statement.

Court officials declined to comment in detail on the White House proposal as they prepared for a March 26 budget hearing on Capitol Hill. “This budget will help the Judiciary continue to recover from several years of essentially flat ­funding followed by sequestration cuts in fiscal year 2013,” the office said.

Legal Services Corp., a main source of money for 134 state and local legal aid agencies, would get $430 million, the same amount the White House requested last year. LSC, Obama’s budget docment said, “assists ­millions of low-income Americans each year with essential civil legal services in areas such as housing and consumer ­protection.”

The proposal would mark a nearly 18 percent increase over LSC’s $365 million budget in the 2014 fiscal year, LSC chairman John Levi said. “The president clearly understands the importance of adequately funding civil legal assistance, even in these tough financial times.”

PRIORITY ON ENFORCEMENT

Most independent regulatory agencies would receive modest increases in money and staffing, with the priority on enforcement. The White House proposal includes a $104 million boost in enforcement spending at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The budget would allocate more money for National Labor Relations Board field investigations; add funding to adjudicate contested decisions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; and projects an increase in private-sector enforcement by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission. The Federal Trade Commission would take a slight hit — one of the few independent agencies to face cuts. The agency’s suggested total budget authority was set at $295 million, down from $299 million this year.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission would get one of the biggest percentage increases — the administration requested a 30 percent bump, from $215 million to $280 million. Still, agency supporters said it would be nowhere near enough, given the CFTC’s responsibility under the Dodd-Frank Act to oversee the $240 trillion swaps market. (The allotment is $35 million less than the president requested last year).

The CFTC has “not received a commensurate increase in funding to bring needed light to these markets, despite being assigned the authority to do so by Congress,” Commissioner Bart Chilton said in a written statement. “We have the mandate, but not the money, to do the job.”

Chilton said the CFTC “staff is on its knees, some reaching for the exit doors and others already having bailed. Employee morale is the lowest I’ve witnessed, dropping 13 percent in just the last year.” The budget request would increase CFTC staffing from 667 to 920 employees.

The SEC, which also took on major new responsibilities under the Dodd-Frank Act, fared better. The president proposed increasing the agency’s budget from $1.35 billion to $1.7 billion. All of the money would be offset by fees the agency collects.

In addition to increasing funding for enforcement, the SEC budget boosts resources for compliance inspections and examinations from $289 million to $368 million. The office of the general counsel would see its budget increase from $30 million to $39 million.

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com and Jenna Greene at jgreene@alm.com.