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Special Interest Groups Kill Criminal Justice Reform in Wisconsin

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A legislative attempt to reform our broken criminal justice system has failed in Wisconsin, thanks to intense lobbying from special interest groups in the state Senate.

Despite strong bipartisan backing, Assembly Bill 537 to reform civil asset forfeiture – a process by which police can seize property from citizens without charging them with a crime – looks like it will not get a hearing in the Labor and Government Reform Committee. Civil asset forfeiture is simply wrong, and creates perverse incentives for policing for profit rather than for justice. Moreover, it affects minority groups most of all. Ending this flawed and dangerous practice will bring us one step closer to justice for all – especially for the least fortunate.

“It's no secret that America's criminal justice system is broken. From overpopulated prisons to high incarceration recidivism [sic] rates, the past few decades have shown that efforts to improve the system have fallen short — both in effectiveness and cost savings,” writes Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) in a recent op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The issues we face are vast and all-encompassing, and — as is often the case with large, complex problems — they can be difficult to visualize.”

Civil asset forfeiture has been shown to disproportionately impact Hispanics, who are statistically more likely to have their property taken by the police, regardless of whether they have committed a crime. Whatever the underlying cause of this racial disparity, it should be a wakeup call to policymakers that the criminal justice system is driving inequality between the Hispanic community and the rest of the nation.   

However, not everyone hears this wakeup call. It’s no surprise that groups like the Sheriffs Association and the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association would try to put the brakes on the bill. In many cases, police departments depend on civil asset forfeiture for significant portions of their budget, creating a strong incentive to indiscriminately seize property regardless of whether the victim is guilty or not. In many states, police do not even have to charge someone with a crime before seizing their cash, cars, or even their home. The departments later sell the goods and keep the money to fund other services within the department, and are under no legal obligation to return the property if their initial suspicions prove to be false. Sometimes the police even fail to provide a receipt.

As M. D. Kittle wrote for Watchdog.org:

“Currently, law enforcement officials are allowed to seize property they believe has been used in illegal activity or is the result of illegal activities. The agency can then begin court proceedings to have the property declared forfeited and sell it even when the owner of the property has never been charged with a crime

In Wisconsin, police agencies are allowed to keep 50 percent of proceeds. If the local agency turns the case over to federal law enforcement agencies, it can keep 80 percent of proceeds.”

There are a number of common sense fixes that the Wisconsin legislature and the U.S. Congress can pass that would lessen the negative impact of civil asset forfeiture. Instead of allowing police departments to keep the proceeds of forfeitures, the money should go to the state’s general fund, so that individual departments no longer have an incentive to seize property for no good reason. When police do seize property, they should be required to supply a receipt indicating the items forfeited and their value.  If their suspicions are proven to be false, they should be required to return them. Most importantly, it is worth examining whether we should abandon civil asset forfeiture entirely. Switching to a system of criminal asset forfeiture – where the owner must be convicted of a crime before the goods can be taken – would be an enormous step in the right direction. Any one of these reforms would be a significant improvement on the current system of seizure without charges, convictions, or repercussions for those involved. 

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