California forfeiture audits are now available here, from the period 2002-2008. Note the latest available report, 2008, notes $32.7 million as the estimated total value of seizures in California. However, this is not the true total value of 2008 California forfeitures; I estimate roughly $62 million in seizures were diverted through the federal Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing program, allowing California’s state and local law enforcement to directly retain a little over $51 million. For California, this is particularly problematic, as much of this money goes towards directing California law enforcement to prioritize cannabis law enforcement. This money is ultimately retained by state and local law enforcement for the purpose of funding equipment, salaries, and chasing more federal grant money; as you might guess, this dramatically influences California law enforcement incentives and practices. As the Wall Street Journal reported in July:
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, his budget under pressure in a weak economy, has laid off staff, reduced patrols and even released jail inmates. But there’s one mission on which he’s spending more than in recent years: pot busts.
The reason is simple: If he steps up his pursuit of marijuana growers, his department is eligible for roughly half a million dollars a year in federal anti-drug funding, helping save some jobs. The majority of the funding would have to be used to fight pot. Marijuana may not be the county’s most pressing crime problem, the sheriff says, but “it’s where the money is.”
As California continues to reel under the weight of cuts to state spending, the impacts become more visible as law enforcement starts cutting staff and funding for everything except cannabis law enforcement:
Tight budgets prompted sheriffs’ departments in the state to cut more than 800 positions in the first three months of this year, out of about 30,000. Support for local law enforcement from the strapped state government will fall by $100 million this year, the California Association of Counties expects.
Shasta County supervisors told Sheriff Bosenko last spring that his budget this year would be about $2 million less than last year’s $38 million.
The sheriff laid off 26 people last July, more than 10% of his staff, among them 11 deputies. He eliminated a major-crimes investigator and cut nighttime patrols to two cars from four.
That slowed responses to emergencies, especially after midnight, when an estimated 20% of drivers in the largely rural county 150 miles north of Sacramento have been drinking. The county has higher rates of assault, burglary, drunken driving and domestic violence than big California cities.
To save still more, Mr. Bosenko closed a floor of the county jail and gave early release to 185 inmates, among them 30 convicted drunk drivers. “Those people will probably go out and drink and drive again and hurt people,” the sheriff says. “The criminals know that there’s very limited offender accountability due to our releases at the jail.”
The implications for basic governance and democracy are pretty big. The forfeiture money that is supposed to be flowing into the state general fund travels through federal hands instead and is used to subvert local law enforcement priorities. By changing the priorities of California’s law enforcement, the federal government deprives California’s citizens of setting their own law enforcement priorities. When this means diminished enforcement for things like drunk driving, this means there is literally a tradeoff between the number of deaths from automobile accidents and the amount of money that California’s law enforcement illegally retains in the service of the Department of Justice.
Supporters of Proposition 19 should note that this is a way for the Department of Justice to implicitly leverage hundreds of millions of dollars against the likelihood of passing Proposition 19. Without reforming asset forfeiture laws, it will be nearly impossible for California’s citizens to reform anything that the federal Department of Justice doesn’t want to see reformed. Regardless of your stance on Proposition 19, that prospect should be fairly frightening to anyone who thinks that people should have the right to determine their own laws through a democratic process.