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Marginal Reform No Solution to Systemic Problems

On July 11, 2011, in states, by John Payne

The D.A.’s office in Suffolk County, Massachusetts has concocted a creative way to spend forfeiture dollars:

At least $50,000 of seized money will be awarded to local non-profits as a part of a Suffolk County District Attorney’s Asset Forfeiture Reinvestment Program.

Particularly non-profit organizations that work with kids and teens are being asked to apply for the annual series of cash awards that provide youth of Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop (Suffolk County) with alternatives to crime and drug use.

This year’s funds total $50,000 according to the DA’s office. The funds are disbursed from Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley’s program that takes cash and assets seized from drug dealers and awards them to Suffolk County organizations to help youths avoid drugs, gangs, and other risky activity.

This is a marginally positive development, but it papers over the real problems with civil asset forfeiture. I’m glad the D.A.’s office will be giving some of their forfeiture money to non-profits, but that money should not go to the district attorney’s office in the first place. Law enforcement agencies shouldn’t be allowed to profit from taking people’s property because it perverts their incentives. However, under Massachusetts’ truly awful forfeiture laws (p. 65), law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep 100% of forfeiture funds, splitting them down the middle between the police and prosecutors.

Even worse, Massachusetts does not require a criminal conviction to forfeit your property. Police only need probable cause to take it, and then you have to go to court and prove your case to get it back. When the Institute for Justice evaluated forfeiture laws in all fifty stats last spring, they assigned Massachusetts a ‘D’ for its poor protection of private property against state-sanctioned theft.

The non-profits that will benefit from the new program in Suffolk County sound like worthy causes, but this smells like a public relations stunt designed to stave off real reform. $50,000 for community programs is good. Basic Constitutional rights to due process are better.

Update: Eapen contacted me to point out an additional problem with this program: “elected officials should not use public funds as largess.” Very true. The D.A. can use this fund as a means to curry favor with the electorate and repeatedly secure reelection. In a republic, public funds should be allocated by the legislature, not by a single official acting like some kind of feudal lord.

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2 Responses to “Marginal Reform No Solution to Systemic Problems”

  1. [...] they make charitable donations for good will which is a nice diversion from the fact that an overwhelming amount goes back to the police [...]

  2. [...] Marginal reform no solution to systemic problems (Suffolk, June 2011) [...]

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