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Sidebar: New Research: Eliminating Civil Forfeiture Does Not Fight Crime

In 2015, the New Mexico Legislature overhauled the state’s forfeiture laws, passing the nation’s strongest reform package. Police and prosecutors warned public safety would be compromised and urged the governor to veto the bill, saying it would “take money out of (law enforcement agencies’) hands” and “[y]ou’ll get less law enforcement.”1 But new research suggests eliminating civil forfeiture did not lead to an increase in crime.

As of July 1, 2015, New Mexico prohibits civil forfeiture, directs all forfeiture proceeds to the state general fund and prevents law enforcement agencies from transferring property worth less than $50,000 to the federal government for forfeiture under the equitable sharing program.2 Previously, law enforcement in the state had been allowed to keep 100% of forfeiture proceeds.

Now that the reform has been in effect for several years, IJ has put law enforcement’s claims to the test. We compared New Mexico’s monthly crime rates to those in neighboring Colorado and Texas before and after reform.3 We detected no significant increase in crime rates that could be attributed to the reforms, indicating the reforms had no negative effect on public safety—and strongly suggesting civil forfeiture is not an essential crime-fighting tool.

Analysis

To test forfeiture proponents’ claims, we conducted multiple analyses to give us the best possible chance of detecting any relationship between state forfeiture laws and crime. First, we compared the average change in crime rates in the two years before and after reform, called a difference-in-differences analysis.4 We then examined the change in crime rates during each month in the periods before and after reform, called an interrupted time series analysis.5

For each analysis, we used five different measures of crime. Data are from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and include total offenses (the total number of crimes committed) as well as four measures of arrests—all arrests, arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, drug possession arrests, and drug sales arrests—which quantify how many crimes police “clear,” or solve, by arresting someone.6 If forfeiture proponents’ arguments held true, we would expect to see two things: (1) a significant increase in the number of crimes committed because forfeiture is no longer deterring crime and (2) a significant decrease in the number of arrests because police are less able to solve crimes without forfeiture.

We compared counties in New Mexico to those in Colorado and Texas to control for general changes in crime rates that are not related to forfeiture reform. These states are ideal controls because they border New Mexico and did not reform their forfeiture laws during the study period.7 To allow enough time for any effects of the 2015 reform to manifest, we studied more than two years of post-reform monthly crime data.8 We also controlled for other factors commonly acknowledged to impact crime rates, such as population, unemployment and number of sworn police officers. Finally, we also conducted analyses limited to just counties on either side of the state border to determine whether any effect is detected among neighboring counties.

Results

Compared to Colorado and Texas, New Mexico’s overall crime rate did not rise following the implementation of strong forfeiture reform in 2015, nor did arrest rates drop. These findings are contrary to forfeiture proponents’ predictions. Rather, New Mexico’s trends across all five of our crime measures remained consistent with those of its neighboring states with one small exception. In one model examining counties on state borders, New Mexico’s arrest rate for selling drugs dropped slightly compared to Colorado’s and Texas’. However, the practical effect is slight9 and inconsistent with the findings across all other models and crime measures, suggesting it is mere statistical noise. See Appendix C for full regression results.

Figures A and B demonstrate that crime rates remained fairly consistent before and after reform. If the reform and crime rates bore a detectable relationship, we would expect to see a drastic upward slope in New Mexico’s offense rate trend in Figure A, and a downward slope in its arrest rate trend in Figure B, immediately following the vertical line indicating the reform’s effective date. Instead, although we observe the typical seasonal trends in crime rates,10 the overall trend line for New Mexico’s offense rate is nearly flat—even flatter than those for the control states. And its arrest rate trend line is very similar to those of the control states.

Figure A: Monthly Offense Rates Per 1,000 Population, Jan. 1, 2013–June 30, 2017

Figure B: Monthly Arrest Rates Per 1,000 Population, Jan. 1, 2013–June 30, 2017

These results call into question claims that forfeiture reform compromises public safety. Instead, it appears New Mexico law enforcement agencies can fulfill their mission without civil forfeiture and the funding it once generated. Our results suggest states can follow New Mexico’s example and eliminate both civil forfeiture and the incentive to police for profit—without sacrificing public safety.

Continue Reading: 2020 Civil Forfeiture Law Grades


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