01.07.09

Leahy Introduces Bill to Provide Rural Law Enforcement Assistance

Burlington Police Chief to Testify at Capitol Hill Hearing Thursday

WASHINGTON (Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009) – On the first day of the new Congressional session, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy introduced legislation designed to help rural communities in Vermont and across the country address crime problems in our neighborhoods and on our streets. The Rural Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which Leahy introduced Tuesday, aims to help local law enforcement agencies address crime problems that are expected to grow worse with the mounting economic downturn.

The Leahy-authored bill will reauthorize a rural law enforcement assistance program first passed by Congress in the early 1990s. The grant program authorizes $75 million per year for the next five years to provide states with financial resources to train state and local law enforcement in prevention and enforcement. The bill also authorizes $2 million a year for the next five years for law enforcement training. Under the Bush administration, authorization for several key law enforcement grant programs has lapsed. The legislation introduced Tuesday builds on legislation Leahy introduced in December to help provide resources to cash-strapped rural state and local law enforcement.

“We must help rural communities like those in Vermont stay safe during this economic downturn,” said Leahy. “Rural areas, which lack the crime prevention and law enforcement resources often available in larger communities, has a particular need for assistance to combat the worsening drug and crime problems that threaten the well-being of our small cities and towns and, most particularly, our young people. The Rural Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 2009 will provide just this kind of help.”

Leahy has proposed including funding for federal grant programs including the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), the Byrne grant program, the Rural Drug Enforcement Assistance grants and other law enforcement support programs in the economic stimulus package. On Thursday, Leahy will chair a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine funding needs for state and local law enforcement.  Burlington Police Chief Michael E. Schirling will testify at the hearing.

In 2008, Leahy chaired a series of hearings examining the impact of crime on neighborhoods and communities across the country. In March and in December, Leahy brought the Senate Judiciary Committee to Vermont to hear from local law enforcement officers and government officials who have been working to identify and implement community-based solutions to crime. Leahy is expected to introduce broad criminal justice legislation early in the new Congress.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy,
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On The Introduction Of The Rural Law Enforcement Assistance Act Of 2009
January 6, 2009 

I am pleased today to introduce the Rural Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 2009, a bill designed to help rural communities deal with growing crime problems that threaten to become significantly worse as a result of the devastating economic crisis we face.

Congress and the new administration are beginning this session focused on passing a stimulus bill that will provide hundreds of billions of dollars to restart our economy, create jobs, and reverse the economic downturn inherited from the Bush administration.   The Bush administration has already provided hundreds of billions of dollars to rescue the financial industry, and President Bush released billions more for assistance to the auto industry.  Despite our legislative efforts to protect jobs and the economy as a whole, little has been done to help the millions of people in rural America, who have been hit as hard as anyone by the devastating effects of this recession.

We must help rural communities stay safe during this economic downturn.  Rural areas, which lack the crime prevention and law enforcement resources often available in larger communities, have a particular need for assistance to combat the worsening drug and crime problems that threaten the well-being of our small cities and towns and, most particularly, our young people.  The Rural Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 2009 will provide just this kind of help. 

This bill will reauthorize a rural law enforcement assistance program first passed by Congress in the early 1990s.  Like so many valuable programs that help local law enforcement and crime prevention, funding for this program was allowed to lapse under the Bush administration, despite its effectiveness in contributing to the record drop in crime in the late 1990s. 

The program would authorize $75 million a year over the next five years in new Byrne grant funds for state and local law enforcement, specifically for rural states and rural areas within larger states.  This support would be used to hire police officers, purchase necessary police equipment, and to promote the use of task forces and collaborative efforts with federal law enforcement.  Just as important, these funds would also be used for prevention and treatment programs in rural communities; programs that are necessary to combat crime and are too often the first programs cut in an economic downturn.  This bill also authorizes $2 million a year over five years for specialized training for rural law enforcement officers, since training is another area often cut in hard times.  This bill will immediately help cash-strapped rural communities with the law enforcement assistance they desperately need.

In December, the Senate Judiciary Committee traveled to St. Albans, Vermont, to hear from the people of that resilient community about the growing problem of drug-related crime in rural America, and about the innovative steps they are taking to combat that scourge.  The introduction of this bill is a step forward to apply the lessons learned in that hearing and in previous crime hearings in Vermont and elsewhere. 

Crime is not just a big city issue.  As we heard in St. Albans last month, and at a hearing in Rutland, Vermont, earlier last year, the drugs and violence so long seen largely in urban areas now plague even our most rural and remote communities, as well.  As the world grows smaller with better transportation and faster communication, so do our shared problems.  Rural communities also face the added burden of fighting these crime problems without the sophisticated task forces and specialized squads so common in big cities and metropolitan areas.  In fact, too many rural communities, whether in Vermont or other rural states, don’t have the money for a local police force at all, and rely almost exclusively on the state police or other state-wide agencies for even basic police services.  In this environment, we must do more to provide assistance to those rural communities most at risk and hardest hit by the economic crisis. 

Unfortunately, for the last eight years, throughout the country, state and local law enforcement agencies have been stretched thin as they shoulder both traditional crime-fighting duties and new homeland security demands.  They have faced continuous cuts in Federal funding during the Bush years, and time and time again, our state and local law enforcement officers have been unable to fill vacancies and get the equipment they need. 

This trend is unacceptable, and that is why we must restore funding for rural law enforcement that proved so successful in 1990s, when crime fell to record lows in rural and urban areas alike.

As a former prosecutor, I have always advocated vigorous enforcement and punishment of those who commit serious crimes.  But I also know that punishment alone will not solve the problems of drugs and violence in our rural communities.  Police chiefs from Vermont and across the country have told me that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem.

Combating drug use and crime requires all the tools at our disposal, including enforcement, prevention, and treatment.  The best way to prevent crime is often to provide young people with opportunities and constructive things to do, so they stay away from drugs and crime altogether.  And if young people do get involved with drugs, treatment in many cases can work to help them to turn their lives around.  Good prevention and treatment programs have been shown again and again to reduce crime, but regrettably, the Bush administration has consistently sought to reduce funding for these important programs.  It is time to move in a new direction.

I will work with the new administration to advance legislation that will give state and local law enforcement the support it needs, that will help our cities and towns to implement the kinds of innovative and proven community-based solutions needed to reduce crime.  The legislation I introduce today is a beginning, addressing the urgent and unmet need to support our rural law enforcement as they struggle to combat drugs and crime. 

It is a first step for us to help our small cities and towns weather the worsening conditions of these difficult times and begin to move in a better direction.  I hope Senators on both sides of the aisle will join me in supporting this important legislation. 

I ask unanimous consent that a copy of the bill be printed in the Record. 

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