In its new report, “Policing for Profit,” the Institute for Justice (IJ) details exactly how law enforcement and prosecutors snatch “…hundreds of millions in cash, cars homes and other property – regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence.”
While forfeiture is hardly a new proceeding, its use has clearly become overuse in the last 30 years if the IJ’s numbers are any indication. Annual deposits from forfeiture reached $4.5 billion, an amount almost 50 times higher than it was three decades ago.
Here’s a quick overview of how it works:
Civil forfeiture accounts for 87% of all government seizure, according to the IJ’s analysis. This fact is much more disturbing than the sheer amount of money and property involved. It means that criminal forfeiture accounts for only 13% of all government seizure of property. So almost 90% of forfeiture proceeds come from situations where citizens may have done nothing wrong: we’ve legalized plunder.
Calling civil forfeiture “one of the most controversial practices in the American criminal justice system” seems appropriate in light of the stories of victims of civil forfeiture told through the report.
In 2014, Charles Clarke had his life savings – $11,000 – confiscated at the Ciincinnatti/Northern Kentucky Airport when security officials thought his luggage smelled like marijuana. No drugs were ever found in his property and the mere suspicion as to why Clarke was traveling with such a large amount of cash (his bank had no local branches and his family was moving so he understandably wanted to keep his money with him) justified the seizure of every dollar the man had to his name.
Also in 2014, the IRS cleaned out Fairmount, North Carolina convenience store owner Lyndon McLellan’s entire business account – $107,000 – because the deposits to the account were less than $10,000 and the tax agency suspected him of “structuring” his deposits so as to evade certain reporting requirements. McLellan was not the person making the deposits – that was his niece – and she was only following the bank teller’s instructions because the smaller deposits meant less paperwork for the bank.
The same happened to Carole Hinders of Iowa, who deposited the proceeds of her cash only restaurant faithfully and honestly. The IRS saw a number of cash deposits and assumed that Hinders was somehow committing a crime, so the federal government’s tax arm seized $33,000 from her account.
Chris Sourovelis of Philadelphia almost lost his house when his son sold $40 of drugs outside his home. Sourovelis had to appear nine times in forfeiture court to keep his rightfully owned property when he hadn’t even been charged with, much less committed, any crime.
And, if these stores weren’t bad enough, the report exposes another level of insidious incentives in our forfeiture laws: equitable sharing. A program of ‘equitable sharing’ allows local and state law enforcement agencies to use federal laws to collect property for the federal government with the understanding that they will get a kick-back from the collective forfeiture pie.
There is hope that things are turning around and improving; just last week, the New York Times reported that the Department of Justice has placed the sharing program on hold because Congress took $1.2 billion dollars from the asset forfeiture program to cover budget shortfalls.
The biggest revelation of the Institute for Justice’s “Policing for Profit” report is that our justice system is no longer about public safety and stopping people who break the law. The United States has allowed justice to careen so out of control that it’s now unabashedly grabbing up the innocent and bankrupting them for the sake of government revenue.
2015 was a year of big victories for the Prison Policy Initiative. Beyond a record number of ground-breaking reports, our campaigns took some very big steps forward and, in some cases, those victories culminated in major policy changes.
Here are some of the biggest wins in our campaigns this year:
The Federal Communications Commission extended their regulation of inter-state calls to also apply to in-state calls, and further lowered the maximum rates and fees that can be charged. The FCC is also now requesting comments on closing the last of the loopholes, which include video visitation, email, etc.
Our report, combined with investigative reporting by Portland, Oregon’s Street Roots, led the Multnomah County Sheriff to announce that he would amend the county’s Securus video visitation contract to bring back in-person visits. This was the first time that a video visitation contract was ever amended to bring back in-person visits.
We collaborated with comedians to produce four hilarious short videos that take on the video visitation industry’s offensive claim that expensive, glitchy video visitation is just like Skype.
We shamed the largest provider of video visitation, Securus, into changing its policy of explicitly requiring, right in its contracts, that correctional facilities using its service ban in-person visitation. Because Securus has shifted responsibility for this repugnant decision to elected sheriffs, we now have more political leverage to encourage the use of video visitation as a supplement to in-person visitation and never as a replacement.
Thanks in part to our research and advocacy, a new law in Texas recognizes that virtual visits are not the same as in-person visits and mandates that each county jail provide a minimum of two in-person visits each week.
Supported by our Suspending Common Sense report, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously voted to repeal a law which automatically suspends the driver’s licenses of people convicted of drug offenses unrelated to driving. This law, a relic of the War on Drugs, makes it harder for people with drug convictions to rebuild their lives. The unanimous support of the Senate and the strong state-wide editorial support from the Boston Herald to the Boston Globe to the Berkshire Eagle has us feeling good about our chances in the House.
Thank you for helping us do all of this work. Here’s to an even more successful 2016!
We made this interactive graphic of “World Women’s Incarceration Rates If Every U.S. State Were A Country” for our collaboration States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context with Russ Immarigeon. See also, in the full report, our graph of the growth in women’s incarceration in prisons and jails from 1910 to last year.
So how large is 1,500 feet? That distance isn’t just a number; it’s taller than the Eiffel Tower, longer than 5 football fields, and it’s more than enough to blanket all of Connecticut’s urban areas in overlapping sentencing enhancement zones. With the help of two of our interns, Elydah Joyce and Arielle Sharma, and a member of our Young Professionals Network, Jacob Mitchell, we produced an animation that we expect will help other states follow Connecticut’s lead in rolling back the worst laws passed at the height of the anti-drug hysteria of the 1980s.
This chart from The Racial Geography of Mass Incarceration shows that in many counties Black people in prison are overrepresented compared to the portion of Black people in the free population. Notably, many of these counties are concentrated in the far left of the graph, where Blacks make up 20% to 60% of the prison populations yet less than 5% of the free population.
These maps from In prisons, Blacks and Latinos do the time while Whites get the jobs show that most correctional facilities with more than 100 incarcerated Blacks or Latinos are located in places where hiring Black and Latino staff in proportional numbers to the incarcerated population is extremely difficult. The small number of facilities that have such parity are, unsurprisingly, located in parts of the country with large populations of Black or Latino residents.
2015 was another year of growing momentum for ending mass incarceration. Our colleagues helped build that momentum by providing key research and proposing reforms that could help our nation reduce its overuse of incarceration. These are some of our favorite reports produced by our colleagues in 2015:
What Caused the Crime Decline? by Dr. Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Julia Bowling, Brennan Center for Justice February 2015 This groundbreaking 50-state report finds that we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to incarceration as a crime-control strategy: at today’s levels, further incarceration will have a negligible effect on crime.
Electronic Monitoring Is Not the Answer: Critical Reflections on a Flawed Alternative, by James Kilgore, Center for Media Justice, October 2015. This is the most comprehensive review of the electronic monitoring industry in the context of mass incarceration and the expanding surveillance state.
And don’t forget to check out our reports page for this year’s original Prison Policy Initiative research.
Earlier today, we published our list of the best investigative criminal justice journalism of 2015. Here at the Prison Policy Initiative we enjoy seeing journalists, artists, advocates, the public, etc. use our research in new, clever ways. Today, we share some of our favorite stories of 2015 featuring our work and staff:
There’s one big task left: to apply similar rules to newer technologies — like email, voice mail and person-to-person video — which are subject to the same kinds of abuses found in the telephone industry.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our January 2015 report on video visitation in prisons and jails, which was referenced in the editorial.
Most jails let relatives make a few free video calls if these are conducted within the prison itself. But travelling a long way, only to sit behind a computer screen, is time-consuming and frustrating.
Prison Vendors See Continued Signs of a Captive Market by David Segal The New York Times, August 29, 2015 Columnist David Segal travels to the American Correctional Association conference to meet the companies who provide products and services to prisons to inquire whether the companies are worried about how “prison reform” might impact their bottom lines. (Spoiler: They aren’t scared, but for why, you’ll need to read the article.)
Abandoned row houses and vacant lots dot this area, which is marked by high unemployment and low-performing schools — yet Maryland’s state budget allocates $17 million each year just to this single neighborhood. That money goes not to job training, family services or education, but solely to incarceration.
Part of the visitation problem is also caused by mass incarceration itself. As states have struggled with overcrowding in their facilities, they’ve been more likely to turn to remote or out-of-state prisons to house inmates. But these far-off locations make it much more difficult for friends and family to reach inmates.
Lopez then goes on to explain that making prison visits difficult for families of the incarcerated is shortsighted:
The point of the criminal justice system is to keep us safe, and taking research-backed steps to prevent inmates from reoffending achieves that goal.
As 2015 winds to a close, the Prison Policy Initiative wanted to recognize eight investigative news stories that brought public attention to key issues in criminal justice reform. In no particular order:
Hundreds of South Carolina Inmates Sent to Solitary Confinement Over Facebook by Dave Maass Electronic Frontier Foundation An exposé finding that in some states incarcerated people are sent to solitary confinement for years for having Facebook accounts, even if family members on the outside are the ones accessing the accounts. In response to the original exposé, Facebook has taken steps to reform its policy of taking down incarcerated people’s Facebook accounts for state Departments of Corrections.
Prison Born by Sarah Yager The Atlantic Shining light on the rarely talked about experience of women in prison, this article focuses on the 1 in 25 women who are pregnant behind bars.
For Men in Prison, Child Support Becomes a Crushing Debt by Eli Hager The Marshall Project Is it reasonable to expect men in prison to pay child support? Is exempting incarcerated fathers fair? This Marshall Project feature finds that many incarcerated fathers are racking up hundreds of dollars in child support debt each month.
Should Prison Sentences Be Based on Crimes That Haven’t Been Committed Yet? by Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Ben Casselman and Dana Goldstein FiveThirtyEight It’s becoming increasingly common to hear talk of “risk assessments” and “evidence-based” tools in criminal justice. This story and interactive tool unpack how risk assessments work and describe what makes Pennsylvania’s plans different: it would be the first to use risk assessment in sentencing rather than, for example, at the pretrial phase.
An Inmate Dies, and No One is Punished by Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz The New York Times This article chronicles the brutal death of Leonard Strickland, one in a larger trend of troubling beatings by corrections officers in New York State prisons. This recent New York Timesarticle details the steps New York State prisons are now taking to better track complaints about corrections officers.
Note: The purpose of this list is to highlight journalists who filled critical gaps in the public’s knowledge about criminal justice issues. To keep things fair, we excluded from consideration any articles that we are quoted in and articles that we consulted on in any way.
The list is published as a briefing with links to more information and model bills, and it was recently sent to reform-minded state legislators across the country. The reform topics we think are ripe for legislative victory are:
Ending prison gerrymandering
Lowering the cost of calls home from prison or jail
Repealing or reforming ineffective and harmful sentencing enhancement zones
Protecting in-person family visits from the video visitation industry
Stopping automatic driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving
Protecting letters from home in local jails
Requiring racial impact statements for criminal justice bills
Repealing “Truth in Sentencing”
Creating a safety valve for mandatory minimum sentences
Immediately eliminating “pay only” probation and regulating privatized probation services
Reducing pretrial detention
Let us know what you think of this year’s list. We look forward to working together to make 2016 a year of great progress for justice reform!
The new fee limits and rate cap of 11¢ per minute for prepaid calls from prison is effective March 17, 2016 and the fee limits and tiered rates (14¢-22¢) for calls from jail go into effect on June 20, 2016.
The FCC also published a call for comments on “ways to promote competition for Inmate Calling Services (ICS), video visitation, rates for international calls, and considers an array of solutions to further address areas of concern in the (ICS) industry.”
Comments can be submitted online for docket number 12-375; comments are due January 19, 2016, followed by reply comments two weeks later.
Easthampton, MA — With 2.3 million people locked up in more than 7,000 correctional facilities operated by thousands of agencies, getting the big picture is anything but easy. Today, with the publication of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015, the Prison Policy Initiative provides the answer to how many people are locked up in the U.S., where, and why. Building upon our groundbreaking 2014 report that, for the first time, aggregated the disparate systems of confinement, this updated version contains further detail on why people are locked up:
As we discuss in our report, looking at the “whole pie” allows us to cut through the fog to answer key questions such as:
After state prisons, what is the next biggest slice of confinement?
How does the number of people that cycle through correctional facilities in a year differ from the number of people locked up on a particular day?
How important is it to ending mass incarceration that we reform the policies that increasingly detain people pretrial?
How many people nationwide are imprisoned because their most serious offense was a drug offense?
How does the number of people in correctional facilities compare to the even larger number of people on probation and parole?