Right on Crime Applauds End of Equitable Sharing Program at DOJ

Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder today announced the end of Equitable Sharing, the process through which state and local law enforcement agencies use the lower-standard federal law to bypass state law preventing/limiting asset forfeiture.

Equitable sharing splits the proceeds of forfeiture actions, allowing state and local agencies to keep up to 80% of the property’s value, with the rest going to the cooperating federal agency.

By using the federal venue (and its relatively low standard), local and state law enforcement agencies are able to circumvent state limits or prohibitions. The Washington Post claims Holder’s new order would, “eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.”

This is not a complete stop for asset forfeiture. Exceptions exist for “dangerous” items (guns, ammunition and explosives); contraband (drugs and child pornography); as well as for assets secured by certain entities, like Joint Task Forces.

It is encouraging to see this administration beginning to respect individuals’ property rights and deferring to the precepts of federalism. While Holder’s actions will not wholly stop abuses from happening, this is certainly a positive step. States have regained some autonomy in setting – and limiting – their own forfeiture practices. We hope to see Congress forward legislation that would completely do away with the practice, rather than relying entirely upon the benign use of executive discretion.


Civil Asset Forfeiture Primer Shows Potential for Reform in Texas

In the past week the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation had a Civil Asset Forfeiture Primer at the Capitol, where they assembled a panel of policy makers, legislators, and authorities to give their expert opinions on the matter and to take questions from the audience. Andrew Kloster, a legal fellow from the Heritage Foundation that focuses on civil rights issues was present, along with Matt Miller from the Institute of Justice where he fights for property rights. They were joined by Shannon Edmonds from the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and Texas State Representative David Simpson. The Center for Effective Justice’s Derek Cohen moderated.

Mr. Cohen began by giving the audience background into the issue of civil asset forfeiture. He mentioned that the idea of forfeiture goes as far back as the Roman Empire and has continued on through out the ages before becoming a bone of contention between England and its colonies before and during the American Revolution. He summed up the issue currently in the terms that it has been referred to by media from all sides. Some look at civil asset forfeiture as an “indispensable tool” for law enforcement and prosecutors while others see it as “policing for profit” and “a sustained assault on the Fifth Amendment and due process.”

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The speakers eagerly discussed the topic. Andrew Kloster began by delving deeper into the reasoning behind the creation of civil asset forfeiture in the American system and how that has devolved today into an abused mechanism in modern day law enforcement.  Shannon Edmonds also chimed in clarifying that civil asset forfeiture was intended to make sure that the proceeds of crime didn’t end right back in the pockets of criminals.

But all agreed that the current situation has resulted in spectacular abuses. Families threatened with the removal of their children, owners of small businesses losing their assets, and case after case of small funds and property taken bit by bit from innocent and often helpless citizens. The money is usually enough to make it worth taking, but not enough to justify the legal expense involved in getting it back, leaving most people without representation or due process.

Both Kloster and Miller spoke of the incentive structures that are present in the current system. When law enforcement is making decisions about whether or not they seize assets, they are making decisions about whether or not their office receives that much more funding. It was made clear that the worry about the incentive structure is not because police and prosecutors are bad people, but that they are having temptation thrown very subtly in their way and that it would be better for them and the public to restructure the system.

Miller spoke of several possible ways to address the problem. The first was an outright ban on civil asset forfeiture. States such as North Carolina and Minnesota have either removed the practice or limited it enough to make it obsolete. This would be a more difficult option, with opposition from several lobbies. But short of that, there are several options. A requirement that the funds not go directly to law enforcement or prosecutors’ offices is a step in the right direction, removing the incentive that they have to increase the seizures. Another change that is needed urgently is to ensure that there is due process to the citizens being threatened under this practice. The burden of proof needs to be one the state instead of the citizen, giving those who have no representation a fighting chance at recovering their property. A third option is to have better reporting by the benefiting office about where the funds are coming from, what form they are being obtained in, and information about what happens in hearings, for example, whether or not the individual had representation.

Finally, almost all of the speakers referenced equitable sharing, an arrangement where law enforcement realizes that they are constrained by local laws, perhaps the asset in question isn’t on the list of seizable items, and they then alert and involve federal enforcement and prosecutors to the situation. These groups, operating on different guidelines, then seize the assets and provide the alerting authorities with a percentage of the profits. Matt Miller strongly recommended limiting or eliminating this practice.

Shannon Edmonds argued in favor of retaining the practice. While not disputing that there had been cases of misuse that should be cause for concern, he also believed that the funds procured by the practice were necessary for the continued operation of law enforcement. Quoting Latin, he argued that “misuse of something does not render it useless”.

The audience seemed largely unswayed by his statements, addressing most of their questions to him. They embodied a growing desire in the state to put an end to the practice that exposes every citizen to threat of seizure. The upcoming session provides an opportunity for legislators to make a change.


Harris County Summit: Pretrial and Mental Health Solutions

In December of 2014 professionals from across the board gathered in Harris County to discuss and answer questions about two pressing issues the criminal justice system is facing: pretrial release decisions and mental health. Assembled by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, they called for greater investment in risk assessments that make smarter decisions about pretrial release, and a “humane alternative” for mental health through collaboration.

Marc Levin began and moderated the discussion by noting the challenge that these issues present, and the success that Harris County is already seeing due to some of its initiatives. Crime has decreased, but he argues that if we want to lower it further and increase safety and well being, we need to identify areas of inefficiency and focus there. Levin then introduced the first speaker, David LaBahn, from the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Admitting that his organization mainly works with larger offices, LaBahn acknowledged the time and resources necessary to take on these issues and find solutions. He urged both sides of the aisle to review and evaluate what has been done in these areas with an idea toward improvement. Having chosen Harris County as a pilot for the Smart Prosecution Project with his organization, LaBahn spoke about the potential in new reforms. Shifting focus from pretrial motions to pretrial releases through the use of risk assessments is one of these reforms, he argued. Following that up, needs assessments are pertinent to ensuring that you have the right people for the right reasons.

LaBahn closed with an anecdote that demonstrated the complex situation with medical expenses in the criminal justice system. The numbers show that reform for mental health is necessary, but they need a human reasonable alternative for this to be reached. In his opinion, jails and custodial facilities are not the place to have medical treatment.

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Pretrial Panel

The morning panel consisted of Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Matt Alsdorf from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Tara Boh Klute from the Kentucky Pretrial Program, Judge Ryan Patrick and District Attorney Devon Anderson. They were gathered to discuss the current situation in pretrial, as well as ongoing and potential reforms.

Sheriff Garcia began by stressing the importance of this dialogue and its effect on public safety. Having already decreased the Harris County jail population by over a thousand, he agreed that continued successes would have to be achieved by refining and improving inefficiencies. Risk assessment and bonding schedules are clearly helpful tools that he argues will help bring this about. The Earned Early Release Credit is currently being applied to low-risk inmates, and has proven to be a success. Overall, he urged new methods that put former inmates on a trajectory to a more productive direction. This would result in fewer victims and expended resources.

Matt Alsdorf, the Director of the Criminal Justice Programs at the Arnold Foundation, followed Sheriff Garcia. He echoed the calls for risk assessments, and detailed a pretrial risk assessment that he and his organization had pioneered, that addresses the current conflicts being had with others. Tara Boh Klute provided information as well, on the pretrial programs that she and others have instituted in Kentucky. The lowered costs and supervision necessary bodes well for such reforms in Houston.

Judge Ryan Patrick and District Attorney Devon Anderson provided different outlooks. Judge Patrick brought out that while crime is down in Harris County, dockets are still overcrowded. A new court in Harris County could go a long way to addressing the backlog and allowing new methods to be instituted. DA Anderson remarked on the program currently being used for low risk marijuana offenders that involves less expense and has been a resounding success. Her objective is to keep from creating “classes of people who are sucked into the criminal justice system [forever].”
Mental Health Panel

In the afternoon a panel that included involved parties and stakeholders discussed mental health. Michael Dirden, the Executive Assistant to the Chief of Police, Dr. Teresa May, the Director of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, Clarissa Stephens Deputy Director, Harris County Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, Dr. Andy Keller, from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, all gathered to find solutions.

Dirden began by stating the problem; lack of capacity. Without room or alternatives in which to place those with mental illness, all the training in the world won’t be helpful. Dr. May helped put that in context, by discussing the revolving door that this created, wasting resources. She urged the use of risk assessments for the mentally ill in order to best place them.

Stephens highlighted the difficulty that exists in agency education when the system is as vast and varied as Harris County. Dr. Keller agreed and argued that the real hang-up in taking programs to scale in the county is the individualized attitudes among agencies

Judge Oscar Hale and Senator John Whitmire added to the discussion by touching on several other topics. Hale brought out the drug court education in schools program that he is involved in, and the revolving door that makes this necessary. But the drug courts that he and others are now involved in have really been making a difference. Whitmire echoed Keller by advocating interagency communication and collaboration. He emphasized that simply sending someone to prison is the easy option, but that alternatively treatment will provide better results by closing down the revolving door.

The theme throughout the day was collaboration. Risk assessments are being developed in many different ways and can and should be a new component of the system. A system that has improved is to be praised, but a system that continues down that path is a beacon and example to other jurisdictions and even states.

In December of 2014 professionals from across the board gathered in Harris County to discuss and answer questions about two pressing issues the criminal justice system is facing: pretrial release decisions and mental health. Assembled by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, they called for greater investment in risk assessments that make smarter decisions about pretrial release, and a “humane alternative” for mental health through collaboration.


Ignore Rolling Stone’s Dangerously Naive Ideas About ‘A Cop-Free World’

In The Federalist yesterday, Right on Crime policy analyst Derek Cohen tackles Rolling Stone‘s unsurprisingly uninformed and overheated argument against police officers.

Few individuals outside of the music editorial realm consider Rolling Stone a reliable source of journalistic content. In recent years the publication’s rank amateurism has been made patently evident in its coverage of the nation’s criminal justice system. Whether a quixotic exercise in the apologetics of a butcher or whole-cloth fabrication of a serious crime, the magazine has managed to persistently reestablish “rock bottom.”

There was little surprise, then, when a piece entitled “Policing is a Dirty Job, But Nobody’s Gotta Do It: 6 Ideas for a Cop-Free World” appeared in mid-December. Author José Martín, the writer who brought you an impassioned defense of arson and destruction, suggests six policies and programs that would eliminate the need for law officers.

Superficially, a few of these suggestions have merit. Some are even empirically supported and actively advocated by conservative reform efforts. However, it takes little more than a cursory glance to see that Martín’s advocacy for these reforms is based more on their view through a filter—one established by clinging to a pre-established narrative—than upon any critical reading.

Continue reading at The Federalist.


DeVore: We’re Not Getting Our Money’s Worth from an Ineffective Criminal Justice System

Texas Public Policy Foundation Vice President Chuck DeVore appeared on Fox Business’ The Independents on Tuesday night to discuss his experience restoring order in the National Guard during the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

DeVore contrasts the militarized firepower of the police department in Ferguson, Missouri with the National Guard. He points out that, in many ways, local law enforcement is more weaponized today than the state’s National Guard is. And, according to DeVore, that militarization of law enforcement is “troubling in an America with a violent crime rate that’s half of what it was in 1992.” It’s “symptomatic of a larger problem in America, where we’re putting more and more money into our criminal justice system and getting less back.” [Read more...]