Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Levin: Assets seized from criminals shouldn't become political slush funds

Little attention is paid to how various jurisdictions spend money generated from asset forfeitures in drug cases, but Marc Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundations fears they've become "political slush funds," and calls in a short column for their further regulation:

The Montgomery County district attorney has spent thousands of dollars in assets seized from criminals on items that have little to do with official prosecutorial duties, including liquor for parties. Meanwhile, Rockwall County D.A. Ray Sumrow was sentenced to four years in prison earlier this month for embezzling public funds, including using fees paid by convicted hot-check writers for an airline ticket for his girlfriend and other personal expenses.

Texas law enforcement officers seize millions of dollars in contraband and cash from drug dealers and other criminals. Half goes to law enforcement to cover expenses like police cars, while the other half goes to the district attorney in the county where the assets were recovered. Most district attorneys are honest and use some of this money to supplement prosecutors’ salaries.

Current state law gives wide discretion to district attorneys in how to spend these funds. Fortunately, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee will hold a hearing this spring on whether (and how) to strengthen the law.

Policymakers should demand a full accounting of how these forfeiture funds are spent. They should also consider allocating some of that money to the State Crime Victims Compensation Fund, which pays restitution to violent crime victims when offenders do not and is rapidly becoming insolvent. The illegal proceeds of criminal activity should be used for law enforcement, actual prosecutorial costs, and making crime victims whole, not as a slush fund for entertainment and self-aggrandizement.

I'd sure like to see that "full accounting." Any reporter who's tried can tell you it's a lot of work to track how asset forfeiture money is spent at any given agency, much less at all of them. Somebody (perhaps DPS Narcotics) should be tracking this stuff.

What's more, I agree with Marc that part or even all of the asset forfeiture money should be devoted to other purposes. Letting the agencies that seize the assets keep the money creates perverse financial incentives that shouldn't come into play in criminal law and don't serve the interests of justice.

While I share Marc's concerns about the insolvency of the victim's compensation fund, I don't see a relationship between that and asset forfeiture seizures, very few of which are related to violent crime. Just like I don't think asset forfeiture income should be linked to ADA salaries - because then DA's feel the need to pursue forfeitures, perhaps improperly, to make their annual budget - it would be irresponsible IMO to rely on forfeitures for the crime victims fund. After all, if the war on drugs were ever truly successful and asset forfeitures declined, it would harm violent crime victims! That's an illogical outcome, and why I think linking the two must be avoided.

In the past, I'd hoped these funds could be used to pay for drug courts, treatment programs, and improving state forensic labs, but at the idea's first suggestion, the powerful lobbies for the DA's, police chiefs and Sheriffs began to howl like scalded hounds. Politically, in 2003 and 2005, at least, the idea was a non-starter. But with the Senate Criminal Justice Committee preparing to hold hearings on the alleged misuse of funds in Montgomery County, perhaps there will be a window next year to redirect some or all of those funds to more constructive uses.


Anonymous said...

Grits: You take all the fun outta things. No need to get personal. Sniff down some other lefty trail and adopt a cause more worthwhile.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hell, Plato, I'm just looking for more money pots for drug treatment and diversion programs. I'm surprised you're not down with that.

Eliminating the conflict of interest where they rely on forfeiture to make their budget is just a bonus in good public policy. If they're just using the money to throw parties and buy toys, why not spend it on something worthwhile?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

And maybe you were joking and I missed the humor, but where did I "get personal"?

Anonymous said...

My lame sense of being funny. I have partaken in some of these "events" paid for with seized money and was provided nothing but the finest food and drink. Seizure money and the hundreds of thousands raked in by hot check fees are abused although some of it is used to supplement salaries. Guess I'm just bitchin' because the DA's have a slush fund and I don't.

Chill out, Grits, and don't take everything so seriously.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Chill out, Grits"

Good advice. I'm having a bit of a crappy week. Maybe it'd cheer me up if some DA would invite me to one of their forfeiture funded booze-and-schooze fests. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you're not on the "A" list for these soirees!! Maybe its something you've said?LOL

The ONLY place that drug money should go should be rehab, reentry and juvenile programs. I am sickened by the sheer greed and lack of public concern by these "public" officials. Who are the crooks anyway???

Anonymous said...

Well it's about damn time...

Anonymous said...

Grits: Its high time, someone brought this up!One thing we know for sure very little of these funds are being spent on treatment, if any. See Texas statute Art. 59.06 (h)The governing body of the political subdivision
shall, by ordinance, order, or resolution, use funds received under
this subsection for:
(1) nonprofit programs for the prevention of drug abuse;
(2) nonprofit chemical dependency treatment facilities
licensed under Chapter 464, Health and Safety Code;
(3) nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation or prevention
programs administered or staffed by professionals designated as
qualified and credentialed by the Texas Commission on Alcohol and
Drug Abuse;
I think that most Texas Counties are running scared and hoping like hell, no one will ask.

Anonymous said...

A point or two...

1. DAs don't get half. 1/3 to 1/4 is the general rule.

2. If DAs don't realize some benefit, there won't be any seizure money.

3. Almost all the money goes where the statute say it should. Salaries and office equipment. County Commissioners sure as hell don't pay for everything.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Re: "2. If DAs don't realize some benefit, there won't be any seizure money."

That's a fascinating and sad observation, and probably true.

I've often suspected that a profit interest, not a justice interest, drives most forfeiture actions, but rarely do you hear it stated so bluntly. I'm sure that's mostly accurate, though.

Anonymous said...

Grits: I love your "velvet hammer" response to Mr. or Ms. "Point or Two." I wonder if he,or she, felt any pain?