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Victim Compensation, Community Programs Gain Little

In addition to touting civil forfeiture’s supposed crime-fighting benefits, proponents often argue forfeited property is used to compensate crime victims and invest in community programs, such as anti-drug initiatives.1 Federal agencies highlight the billions they recovered from individuals involved in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and returned to defrauded investors.2 But on the whole, DOJ spends less than one-third of its forfeiture proceeds on victim restitution or other compensation to third parties with a claim to forfeited property, such as lienholders.3 Federal guidelines also prohibit state and local agencies from transferring more than $25,000 a year in DOJ equitable sharing proceeds to community-based organizations such as drug treatment facilities, job skills programs, and youth programs offering drug and crime prevention education. Treasury equitable sharing proceeds cannot be used this way at all.4

And when it comes to state and local agencies’ expenditures, the picture is even bleaker. While some states mandate spending on victim compensation or community programs or take a cut off the top for these purposes,5 available expenditure data for 13 states6 suggest money is otherwise rarely spent on victim compensation or community programs. More often, forfeiture funds are spent on everyday expenses for police and prosecutors. In 2018, 32% of total expenditures across 13 states went toward equipment and capital expenditures, and 19% was spent on personnel (see Figure 25).7 Personnel expenditures are particularly troubling as they may include law enforcement salaries, benefits, overtime and even bonuses, giving police and prosecutors a strong personal incentive to seize and forfeit property.8 Another 21% of expenditures were categorized as “other,” either because the expense category was unknown or because an expenditure represented a transfer to another law enforcement agency, making it impossible to know how the funds were eventually spent.

Figure 25: Total Expenditures from Forfeiture Funds by Category, 13 States, 2018

Note: The 13 states are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii (Department of the Attorney General only), Massachusetts (District Attorneys and Office of the Attorney General only), Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota (Attorney General only), Tennessee (Department of Safety and Homeland Security only), Texas, Utah and Virginia. Data may not cover the same 12-month period for all states. See data notes in State Profiles for source details.

By comparison, the amount spent on community programs is tiny. Of the 15 states for which we obtained data,9 none spent more than 12% of forfeiture proceeds on community programs (see Figure 26). Most spent under 5%. And states’ spending on victim compensation was even worse: Every state spent 2% or less of forfeiture proceeds on victims (see Figure 27).10 Some states, represented by question marks in Figures 26 and 27, do not track these categories of spending in the first place. These states may include this spending in their “other” categories, or they may spend so little on community programs and victim compensation that they do not bother to track it. Either way, it is impossible to measure what—if anything—these states spend on community programs and victims.

Florida’s relatively high spending on community programs may be due to a state law requiring agencies to spend at least 25% of forfeiture proceeds on community drug education programs.11 However, at 11%, Florida’s spending on this category is lower than the law requires, suggesting agencies either are not living up to their legal obligations or are not reporting their spending consistently.

Taken together, and notwithstanding a few outliers, these findings undermine claims that community improvement and victim compensation are important purposes of forfeiture.

Figure 26: Percentage of Expenditures from Forfeiture Funds Spent on Community Programs and Donations, 15 States, 2017–2019 Average

Note: Hawaii expenditures are for the Department of the Attorney General only. Massachusetts’ are for District Attorneys and the Office of the Attorney General. South Dakota’s are for the Attorney General. Tennessee’s are for the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Data cover a mix of calendar and fiscal years. Not all states had data for all three years. See data notes in State Profiles for source details.

Figure 27: Percentage of Expenditures from Forfeiture Funds Spent on Victim Compensation and Services, 15 States, 2017–2019 Average

Note: Hawaii expenditures are for the Department of the Attorney General only. Massachusetts’ are for District Attorneys and the Office of the Attorney General. South Dakota’s are for the Attorney General. Tennessee’s are for the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Data cover a mix of calendar and fiscal years. Not all states had data for all three years. See data notes in State Profiles for source details.

Continue Reading: Sidebar: South Carolina High Court Weighs Forfeiture and the Constitution


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