By Project 21, Special for USDR.
Law enforcement agencies focus too much on revenue-generating activities that have a negative impact on poor and minority communities, further straining the relationship between police and the communities they serve, according to the black leadership network Project 21 . As part of its “Blueprint for a Better Deal for Black America,” Project 21 recommends 10 criminal justice reforms. Among them: Requiring convictions be obtained before assets are forfeited, prohibiting incarceration for fine-only misdemeanors, requiring fines and forfeitures go to general funds rather than an enforcing agency’s budget and considering a person’s ability to pay when levying fines.
“Our founders never intended that merely being accused of a crime would be a sufficient basis to take a man’s home or his property. It is axiomatic that, before you must forfeit your car or personal savings, the government should obtain a finding of guilt of some relevant charge,” said Project 21 Co-Chairman Horace Cooper, a former constitutional law professor and senior counsel to congressional leaders. “Just because government has a voracious appetite for funds, it’s not a good enough reason to dispense with a citizen’s constitutional rights.”
While fines, fees and asset forfeiture are tools intended to help members of law enforcement fight crime, there is a growing tendency for them to be overused by police departments, according to Project 21. As a result, the group says, poor and minority populations are more likely to be victims of civil asset forfeiture. A study by the Nevada Public Policy Institute about civil asset forfeiture in Las Vegas, for example, found that two-thirds of the assets seized by police in 2016 were concentrated in 12 zip codes with an average poverty rate of 27 percent – more than double the poverty rate of the remaining 36 regional zip codes. These particular zip codes also have an average non-white population of 42 percent.
A Washington Post study determined that over 7 million people nationwide may have had their driver’s licenses suspended due to outstanding fines or court costs.
Even more troubling, Project 21 notes, is the appallingly high rate of incarceration related simply to an inability to pay fees and fines. By one estimate, approximately 20 percent of inmates in some local jails are incarcerated because they owe money for legal offenses. In other words, those with fine-only misdemeanors such as traffic violations have been jailed for merely failing to pay fines.
A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report on the court system in Ferguson, Missouri found the system operated “not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue” in a manner that “imposes particular difficulties on low-wage workers, single parents and those with limited access to reliable transportation.”
“Criminal justice reform is very important to the black community. Too many people find themselves facing incarceration or other setbacks such as losing driver’s licenses because they cannot pay fines for minor offenses. Those lacking the means to pay must be protected from overly harsh penalties and revenue-driven enforcement efforts,” said Project 21 member Emery McClendon, a tea party activist. “We also must reform civil asset forfeiture policies that determine if the seizure of private property related to a crime is relevant. We also need to return property to rightful owners in a timely fashion if there is no conviction.”
There are ten specific Project 21 proposals in its Blueprint to give black Americans a better deal through reforming the criminal justice system:
- Requiring the government to establish a connection between the owner of property and an alleged crime before property can be taken.
- Requiring a criminal justice conviction to be obtained before assets are permanently forfeited to government.
- Requiring assets be returned within 30 days unless charges are filed against the owner.
- Requiring the government to return property immediately upon failing to obtain a conviction.
- Requiring proceeds from forfeited property to go into general funds instead of the seizing agency’s budget.
- Requiring proceeds from fines and fees to go into general funds instead of a fining agency’s budget.
- Reducing the number of revenue-generating activities by prohibiting police from pulling over cars solely for minor traffic infractions such as broken tail lights or failing to wear car restraints.
- Prohibiting authorities from using failure to pay as grounds to deny the means for making payments, such as the suspension of driver’s licenses.
- Requiring that ability to pay be one of the factors considered in levying fines and fees.
- Prohibiting incarceration for failure to pay fines on misdemeanor offenses, except as a last resort.
“Civil asset forfeiture was designed to target drug dealers and other criminals, with confiscated property helping fund the police. But too many innocent people – particularly blacks and other minorities – are now losing their money, cars and other property without being convicted of any wrongdoing. This must end,” said Project 21 member Derrick Hollie, who is also the president of the group Reaching America. “Law enforcement agencies argue that civil asset forfeiture supports task forces and buys new equipment. While I support their mission, I cannot support police taking people’s hard-earned assets without justification. Project 21’s ‘Blueprint for a Better Deal for Black America’ sets up new, fair standards to protect the innocent.”
Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research.