THE LAW ENFORCEMENT Assistance Administration was created in 1968 in the fond belief that it would provide an answer to the nation's crime problem. Ten years and $6 billion later, LEAA is a case study in how a good idean can be strangled by red tape, bureaucratic ineptitude and political in-fighting. While its efforts have produced some improvement in local law-enforcement agencies in some parts of the country, almost no one thinks the results have been worth the price.LEAA must be either drastically changed or put out of its misery.
Despite the campaign rhetoric that suggested President Carter would urge the abolition of LEAA, the administration is now arguing that the agency is worth saving. The program it has proposed, devised largely by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), would streamline the agency's operations, reduce and break up its bureaucracy and keep the dollars flowing from Washington. It is an ingenuous solution to LEAA's problems because there is something in it to answer almost every critic of LEAA's performance.
For those who think there have been too many federal strings attached to the money local governments get, this proposal assigns 70 percent of LEAA's funds to a block-grant program. State and local governments will know in advance how much they are going to get and can decide themselves on how to spend it within certain restrictions. For those who think there have been too few federal strings attached, the other 30 percent of LEAA's funds would be controlled by Washington and made available to local governments - mostly those with major crime problems - on a matching basis for innovative law-enforcement programs. For those who claim local governments have had trouble finding the matching funds, the proposal lets local governments use the federal dollars they get through block grants to match the dollars they want under the other program.
The same balancing act runs through the administrative aspects of the proposal. State governments would lose much of the control they now exercise over how local governments spend LEAA money. LEAA would lose much of the control it has over the major portion of its grants. But LEAA would gain even wider discretion than it has had over where and how 30 percent of its funds are spent.
Anyway you look at it, that is a nice mixing of the approach to federal aid urged unsuccessfully by former president Richard Nixon and the traditional, many-strings-attached view of congressional Democrats. It gets some money to help law-enforcement agencies into almost every community (the District of Columbia would get $1.5 million off the top and Fairfax County would get $643,000, for example) and yet leaves Washington with enough funds to try to guide local governments into exceptionally useful programs.
The proposal, in other words, is the best solution anyone has thought of to LEAA's problems - if you believe there ought to be an LEAA. Frankly, we are not yet entirely sure about whether the federal government ought to be in the business of helping and guiding local governments in solving what is clearly a local problem: crime control. LEAA was created in the hope that some federal money and some federal guidance could produce miracles. Clearly, that hasn't happened. Is it better for Washington to try to focus its guidance more sharply and continue to send local governments a little money (the $600 million or so Congress has been willing to spend is only a drop in the bucket of law-enforcement costs)? Or is it better for Washington simply to get out of the guidance business entirely and turn back to the states both the problem and the revenue? The Carter-Kennedy proposal asserts the former course is wiser. Its proponents will need to present a strong case at the congressional hearings to persuade use they are right.