REFORMING THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

Law enforcement agencies have become too focused on revenue-generating activities.

These activities have not only hurt minorities disproportionately, but strained relationships between police departments and the communities they serve.

Fines, fees and forfeitures are tools that were intended to help officers fight crime. But because they also provide funding for police departments, they tend to be over-used.

Among the most overused of these tools is civil asset forfeiture. Forfeiture allows officers to seize property that they believe may have been involved in a crime. This means the owner of the property need not be convicted of a crime – nor even accused of being involved in a crime – for the property to be taken.[i]

One of the most infamous cases of civil asset forfeiture is that of Tina Bennis, whose car was seized when her husband was caught soliciting a prostitute while he was behind the wheel. Unbelievably, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the forfeiture, making Tina Bennis the victim of betrayal twice: once by her husband and once by the justice system.[ii]

The poor and minorities are more likely to be victims of civil asset forfeiture than other population groups.

A study by the Nevada Public Policy Institute of civil forfeiture in Las Vegas found that two-thirds of the assets seized by police in 2016 were concentrated in 12 zip codes that had an average poverty rate of 27% – more than double the poverty rate of the remaining 36 zip codes. These zip codes also have an average non-white population of 42%.[iii]

A study by Lucy Parsons Labs of civil forfeitures in Cook County, Illinois showed a similar pattern. Low-income South Side and West Side neighborhoods were more likely to have been targets of asset forfeiture.[iv]

The poor and minorities are also being incarcerated at a greater rate due to their inability to pay fees and fines imposed to generate revenue.

By one estimate, 20% of those in local jails are incarcerated because they didn’t pay a fine or fee. Those with fine-only misdemeanors, such as traffic violations, have been jailed for failing to pay fines.[v]

Blacks deserve a better deal in the criminal justice system.

Project 21 recommends….

  • Requiring a criminal justice conviction to be obtained before assets are permanently forfeited to government.
  • Requiring assets to be returned within 30 days unless charges are filed against the owner.
  • Requiring the government to establish a connection between the owner of property and an alleged crime before property can be taken.
  • Requiring the government to return property immediately upon failing to obtain a conviction.
  • Requiring proceeds from forfeited property to go into general funds instead into the seizing agency’s budget.
  • Requiring proceeds from fines and fees to go into general funds instead of into the fining agency’s budget.
  • Reducing the number of revenue-generating activities by prohibiting police from pulling over cars solely for minor traffic infractions such a broken tail lights or failing to wear car restraints.
  • Prohibiting the incarceration for fine-only misdemeanor offenses for failure to pay fines except as the last resort.
  • Requiring that the ability to pay be one of the factors considered in levying fines and fees.
  • Prohibiting authorities from using failure to pay to be used as grounds to deny the means for making payments, such as driver’s licenses.

[i] Jonathan Snead, “An Overview of Recent State-Level Forfeiture Reforms,” The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., August 23, 2016, available at https://www.heritage.org/crime-and-justice/report/overview-recent-state-level-forfeiture-reforms.

[ii] Thomas Locastro, “My Husband Got a Prostitute and the Police Got My Car,” Circa, Arlington, Virginia, November 15, 2016, available at https://www.circa.com/story/2016/11/15/politics/my-husband-got-a-prostitute-and-the-police-got-my-car.

[iii] Scott McCallen, “Nevada Report: Civil Asset Forfeiture Targets Low-Income Minorities,” Red Alert Politics, August 8, 2017, available at https://www.circa.com/story/2016/11/15/politics/my-husband-got-a-prostitute-and-the-police-got-my-car.

[iv] C.J. Ciaramella, “Poor Neighborhoods Hit Hardest by Asset Forfeiture in Chicago, Data Shows,” Reason, Los Angeles, California, June 13, 2017, available at http://reason.com/blog/2017/06/13/poor-neighborhoods-hit-hardest-by-asset.

[v] Marc Levin, “Cash-Strapped and Incarcerated: The Modern Debtor’s Prison,” The Hill, Washington, D.C., November 23, 2016, available at http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/crime/307361-cash-strapped-and-incarcerated-the-modern-debtors-prison.

All web addresses verified as operational as of March 19, 2018.