We remarked in class some time ago that bribery is no longer an issue in the modern-day police force—a testament to how much the police has developed from its early days. I would suggest, though, that the same profit motive that saw officers accepting bribes despite their morally reprehensible nature lives on today. Instead of waiting expectantly for an offer to be made, however, officers can now seize the property and money of suspects in drug raids, and have at least part of the benefits channelled towards their department. All they need to do is invoke the “Equitable Sharing Program”.
With equitable sharing, property and money that is seized by state and local law enforcement are governed by federal forfeiture law, instead of the more stringent local law. As such, local agencies receive up to 80% of proceeds forfeited. Since law enforcement receives an ever-dwindling share of the state budget, this program makes civil asset forfeiture a very attractive alternative source of funding that police departments have come to rely on.
While this measure may be a form of equitable sharing for government agencies, it has only perpetrated greater inequality on the ground. Drug-related crime and investigation is often concentrated in poorer communities, which are often made up of African-Americans or Hispanics. Once officers confiscate property from suspects, it is very difficult even for suspects later found to be innocent to reclaim their property. The expenses involved in challenging seizures in court automatically excludes many victims of wrongful civil asset forfeiture. Unfortunately, this makes minority neighbourhoods better targets, furthering the extent of systemic racism inherent in the American criminal justice system.
In the task force reports that we read, not many of them mentioned this mode of economic discrimination. Granted, this is not one of the “more pressing” areas in need of reform in the criminal justice system since it is not exactly a life-or-death issue. However, I thought it would be interesting if they had proposed changing federal programs such as equitable sharing to avoid making the exploitation of disadvantaged communities seem lucrative and tempting. In addition to introducing incentives to encourage compliance with best practices, I think it is also important to remove policies that are proven to fuel injustice and inequity—even if their names suggest that they are meant to be the opposite.