Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Discretionary funds from commissary to asset forfeiture money bolster local law enforcement budgets

At the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, James Pinkerton offered up a rare adumbration of all 18 county-level pots of "discretionary funds" available in particular to the District Attorney and the Sheriff. ("Harris County has access to millions in discretionary funds," June 10) The sources? "The discretionary funds are raked in after seizures from gambling raids, drug busts, or amassed from fees for writing hot checks or evading county highway tolls."

Further, "Seven of the 18 funds, including a million-dollar fund overseen by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, are not required to be audited and don't have to report their spending." Countywide, "The 18 funds - controlled by the sheriff, district attorney, constables, county commissioners, county attorney and fire marshal - hold a total of $38 million, according to the most recent accounting by county auditors."

At the Harris County Sheriff, the jail commissary is the single biggest revenue producer and the Sheriff controls revenue from that line item entirely. (Funds from phone services go into the county general fund.)  Sheriff's spokesman Alan Bernstein commented to Grits that with a total annual budget of $392 million, the $16.1 million in discretionary funds isn't much of a "'cash stash,' as the story calls it," which is true as far as it goes. It's also a fair amount of unfettered money during a tight budget environment. Bernstein says the Sheriff has not spent discretionary funds on either overtime at the jail nor for staffing patrols.

Sheriff Garcia's spokesman told the Chronicle such funds are justified because "criminals are helping to pick up part of the tab." But in the case of commissary profits (and phone service) it's more likely the alleged criminal's family footing the bill, which isn't exactly the same thing.


Anonymous said...

It would be nice if the elected officials that control budgets for these agencies had some say about the disposition of the funds. It's just wrong to allow a DA or Sheriff to do pretty much what they want with the money.

Anonymous said...

Golly Gee, how is it prosecutors and jails are constantly lamenting how broke they are when there is this much seizure money laying around.

Any chance this money goes to help push "tough on crime" legislation?

Anonymous said...

Now, this just can't be right. After all, when faced with the prospect of doing a little more DNA testing we were told how proseuctors and law enforcement are operating on a shoe-string budget and having to do more DNA testing would be such an unreasonable financial burden.

Anonymous said...

There are any number of good reasons for there to be a financial "buffer" between the sheriff's department and DA's office, and the commissioners court. Unless you want your county judge and commissioners having undue influence over the management and decision making of the independent agencies.

Chapter 59 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was just amended last legislative session to provide detailed restrictions and limitations on the use of seized funds. Annual reports are required to be made to the attorney general.

Anonymous said...

What is missing from this equation is the "asset seizures" of both cash and other assets of value that were taken from "criminals" who had no contraband found in traffic stops and are starting to litigate to get their assets back. There have been a few returns of these assets to people who were guilty of nothing more than a questionable traffic stop, especially on I40 in Harris, Carson and Potter counties.
Are there any hard numbers on the stop & searches where nothing was found or where assets were seized for no other reason than a "hunch" by the DPS officer? Twice in the last two months on Friday evenings I witnessed what could only be described as a "shark feeding frenzy" of traffic stops where the "chum" was out of state tags and the sharks were the DPS. I counted 16 stops on one night and 13 on the other in the 10 mile stretch west of Amarillo. Two of these cars were in the same lane, one in front of me and one three cars back from me. The only difference was the state of origin as I passed the Illinois car a few miles back and was behind the Oregon car.
So many people & their possessions were on the side of the road that it made it dangerous driving facing the sunset and changing lanes to give way to law enforcement, tow trucks and dogs.
I find it hard to believe every one of these vehicles in that short of distance being searched like that all carried contraband.
It's hard to believe that all these seizures were just and that the innocents won't eventually sue and win back their belongings.
Do the counties set aside a fund for "returns" available to those who were wrongly arrested?

Anonymous said...

Hi! I just would like to give you a huge thumbs up for the great info you have here on this post.

I will be returning to your blog for more soon.
my webpage - Stromrechner online