July 22, 2019

Civil forfeiture puts innocent people’s property at risk, and law enforcement uses it to police for profit. IJ has always known this, and thanks to our work, a growing number of Americans know it, too. We’ve been so successful in turning the tide of public opinion against forfeiture that proponents have been left with only one claim in their defense: “Forfeiture fights crime.” But does it really?

We and other forfeiture critics have long doubted that claim. And now, thanks to a strategic research report released in June, we have strong new evidence against it. We commissioned Dr. Brian Kelly, associate professor of economics at Seattle University, to test whether forfeiture helps police fight crime or is instead used by police to raise revenue. The result is Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue? Testing Opposing Views of Forfeiture.

The most extensive and sophisticated study of its kind, it combines local crime, drug use, and economic data from a variety of federal sources with more than a decade’s worth of data from the nation’s largest forfeiture program, the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program. Each year through equitable sharing, state and local law enforcement agencies partner with the feds on tens of thousands of forfeitures and get back hundreds of millions of dollars in proceeds, which by law must be used to supplement their budgets.

In this way, equitable sharing—and forfeiture in general—gives law enforcement more resources to fight crime. Or so proponents say. Yet our study finds that all this extra money does not translate into more crimes solved or less drug use, strongly suggesting forfeiture is not the valuable crime-fighting tool proponents claim.

Proponents ask us to accept forfeiture’s many major downsides—from the horror stories of innocent people losing their property to the shocking examples of forfeiture fund misuse—because of this one important supposed upside. But our study adds to a growing body of evidence showing this upside is illusory.

At the same time, it provides additional evidence that policing for profit is real: When local economies suffer, forfeiture activity increases, indicating police may make greater use of forfeiture when local budgets are tight. A 1 percentage point increase in local unemployment—a standard proxy for fiscal stress—was associated with a 9 percentage point increase in seizures of property for forfeiture.

More and more legislators are showing openness to even the most sweeping forfeiture reforms, but they often lose their nerve when proponents tell them reining in forfeiture will hurt police work and make communities less safe. Our new findings show them they can end the financial incentive in state forfeiture laws and limit law enforcement’s ability to profit from equitable sharing without jeopardizing police effectiveness. IJ’s communications and legislative teams are busy making sure lawmakers get the truth.

The facts are on our side, and we’re going to use this new research to support reforms to keep police focused on fighting crime, not raising revenue.

Mindy Menjou is IJ’s research editor.

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