American Elephants

Getting the Incentives Right Makes All The Difference by The Elephant's Child

police_by_steve_lyon_500x280Are you familiar with the term “Civil Asset Forfeiture”? Between 1989 and 2010, U.S. attorneys seized an estimated $12.6 billion in asset forfeiture cases. The growth rate in sums seized averaged at a positive 19.4% annually.  In the year 2010 alone that number increased by 53.8%from the previous year and was six times greater than the total seized in 1989. In 2014 the amount seized for the year was roughly $4.5 billion.

According to the FBI the total amount of goods stolen by criminals in 2014 burglary offenses represented an estimated $3.9 billion. In other words, the police are now taking more assets than the crooks. Call it policing for profit. What’s going on? How does it work?

We give local police and prosecutors the authority to seize cash, cars, homes and other property from private citizens — without a court convicting those citizens of any crime. Without even charging them of a crime.  Then the authorities get to sell the goods and keep the profits for themselves. The incentives built into the system have led some localities to turn forfeiture into a shakedown operation.

On the one hand, we depend on the police to keep our neighborhoods safe; on the other we have Black Lives Matter activists charging police with racism and unnecessary attacks on innocents because of their race. Again, incentives at work. Police recruitment is down across the country. Potential recruits see no point in signing on for an occupation where they will be accused of racism, physically attacked, when they are risking their lives to protect the people. Even when cleared of all charges by careful investigation, they are assumed to be murderers. Who needs that?

Valerie Jarrett has just announced that President Obama will be working to reform the criminal justice system, releasing about 6,000 inmates convicted of drug related offenses, and she said, reforms that reduce prison populations will make America safer.

The idea seems to be that the black community suffers from an absence of fathers, and there are too many fathers in prison for non-violent offenses like selling drugs, so if we get the fathers out of prison, it will help the black community. Or something like that. “Banning the box” on federal employment applications will make a criminal background less apt to result in being rejected, and more men will be employed.

“If you keep people from going to prison in the first place, and they don’t get caught up in that system and they are getting employed and they have ways of taking care of their family, that brings crime down, and so I think we have all of the stakeholders firmly engaged in this process as a way of keeping our neighborhoods safer and allowing people to lead productive lives.”

“Jarrett predicted “really big things” would happen during Obama’s final year in office.” Somehow that statement does not fill me with confidence or anticipation.


Give Credit Where Credit is Due: Eric Holder Got Something Right. by The Elephant's Child

eric_holder_fast_furious_contempt_chargesEric holder’s Justice Department finally got something right. He did a good thing. On Friday, the attorney general barred state and local  police from using federal law to seize property from citizens without any criminal charges or even a warrant. Under a program called Equitable Sharing, police could pull someone over for a minor infraction and if they found a large amount of cash, or anything suspicious, they could seize the car and the cash without any evidence that the cash had been obtained illegally. They citizen would then have to prove his innocence to get it back.

The program began back in the early 1980s as a tool to fight the illegal drug trade, which is conducted largely in cash. After 9/11 it was ramped up to fight terrorism.

It has evolved into something far beyond the original intent. Abuses were likely, and it became clear that local police departments could substantially increase their revenue by seizing property and making the property-owners fight to get it back on their own dime.

Ilya Somin detailed some particularly egregious cases at The Volokh Conspiracy. Do follow the link, particularly if you are unfamiliar with civil asset seizure. It seems unbelievable that they could get away with this kind of thing for so long. Civil asset forfeiture is based on the premise that law enforcement official could seize property if they could show a connection between the property and illegal activity. It does not require the property owner to be convicted of a real crime.

Read about the Caswells who owned a motel that his father had built in 1955. The U.S. Department of Justice intended to seize the motel, sell it for perhaps $1.5 million and give 80 percent to the Tewksbury Police Department which has a budget of just $5.5 million.

Lots of examples from Reason, including lots of samples of ‘Christmas Gifts’ Cops seized from people who had purchased the gifts with their own money. These examples of police misbehavior have undoubtedly played a part in the recent accusations against police.

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