As the Justice Department breathes new life into a federal law that allows local police to keep a lion’s share of the assets impounded from individuals charged with crimes, a study warning of the unintended consequences of a “police for profit” approach could provide additional ammunition for critics.
A working paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) said the 1984 law contributed to a 17 percent crime decline over the ensuing decade in jurisdictions where the law was applied.
The law also gave police departments around the country a windfall that paid for increases in equipment, the creation of drug task forces, and subsidized as much as 20 percent of local law enforcement budgets, said the paper, written by researchers at Florida State University.
At the same time, it increased the risk of abuse and led to “unintended consequences” such as a rise in road fatalities—apparently as a result of reduced enforcement of traffic laws.
The connection between the shift in emphasis to pursuing drug offenders and the new proceeds pouring into police coffers, raises questions about whether police priorities were distorted by financial incentives, said the authors of the study, Shawn Kantor and Carl Kitchens, professors at Florida State University (FSU); and Steven Pawlowski, an FSU economics student.
They noted that while drug arrests increased by 37% in the eight years since the CCCA was passed, there was no significant increase in arrests for other violent and non-violent crimes, said the study.
“The notion that local law enforcement agencies ‘police for profit’ cannot be dismissed,” the authors said.
The expansion of federal civil asset forfeiture laws came with passage of the omnibus 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act (CCCA), a sweeping measure enacted at the height of national anxiety over rising crime and, in particular, drug-related crime.
Under a provision of the CCCA, many local law enforcement agencies were allowed to seize up to 80% of the assets of criminal suspects, which represented in some cases more than three times what they had been previously allowed to keep under state laws.
In 2014, the last year for which the study provides figures, over $4.5 billion in assets, including cash and valuables, were expropriated by local law enforcement agencies around the country and turned over to the federal government.
Although the portion returned to police agencies represented a comparatively small amount, it was substantial enough to subsidize as much as 20 percent of the budgets of local police departments, said the study.
Relying on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the study found that law enforcement activities since 1984 correspondingly skewed towards the War on Drugs, reflecting the opportunity to exploit the huge profits made by drug dealers and narcotics traffickers.
Moreover, the authors noted, that while the expanded forfeiture provisions fulfilled the CCCA’s aim of reducing the financial incentives of crime, “the potential for abuse has also increased.”
They cited, for example, Chicago data showing that forfeitures were overwhelmingly carried out in low-income and minority communities, where the median value of asset seizures was a little over $1,000─a far cry from the “drug kingpins” whose profits amounted to millions.
Concerns about abuses led then-Attorney General Eric Holder to curb the practice in 2015, limiting asset seizures only to those convicted of crimes. Police officers who expropriated profits without a criminal charge or warrant were subject to suspension.
His successor, Jeff Sessions, reversed the policy in July; but after mounting criticism from Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union, he ordered Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to hire a director to serve as a watchdog over the practice and take action if problems arise.
“The asset forfeiture program has proven to be extremely valuable to law enforcement in our country, but it has received certain criticisms,” Sessions said in a statement released earlier this week.
The September NBER study was released well in advance of the latest twist in policy, but it made clear that more study of the civil asset forfeiture program was needed.
“It is important to understand how the system (specifically, civil asset forfeiture) affects the behavior of participants in the criminal justice system and generates intended and unintended consequences,” the authors said.
The study is available for purchase, downloadable here. Journalists who wish to receive a copy free of charge should email Megan Hadley at Megan@thecrimereport.org