June 13, 2020 - 9:17 pm
Even with tensions running high throughout the country, there is widespread unity around improving policing and implementing important reforms. The challenge resides in identifying policies that will truly help limit prosecutorial and law enforcement abuses.
While “defunding the police” is now all the rage in progressive circles, it is simply not a serious proposal — politically or otherwise. The state has a vital function when it comes to protecting the life, limb and property of its citizens. The notion that eliminating the police is actually a desirable policy goal speaks volumes about our current state of discourse.
Other possible fixes being discussed include reining in the power of police unions, which too often protect rogue officers. But political realities will likely make that a tough sell also.
There are a handful of reforms, however, that have been advancing at various levels for years and would go a long way toward smoothing inequities in the criminal justice system, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. “To have effective and trusted law enforcement,” John Kramer of the Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Justice wrote last week, “local, state and federal officials must take concrete actions to change the underlying incentives that work to enable and even encourage police abuse.”
Those actions include:
■ Abolishing civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize and keep property even if the owner is never convicted or charged with a crime. Such laws — which have obvious due process issues — were expanded during the 1980s as part of the War of Drugs in an effort to separate criminal kingpins from their ill-gotten gains. Too often, however, they’re used today to seize property, cash and other valuables from those unlikely to fight back.
If this isn’t bad enough, many law enforcement agencies get to keep the proceeds of forfeited cash, cars and even homes. To call this a perverse incentive is a gross understatement. In 2016, the Metropolitan Police Department seized $1.9 million worth of cash and property using civil forfeiture, according to a Nevada Policy Research Institute study. In Clark County and places around the country, civil forfeiture disproportionately occurs in minority communities.
■ Re-examining qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that makes it difficult to hold government actors, including police officers, liable for violations of constitutional rights.
“In practice, this means that government officials have a free pass to violate your rights as long as they do so in a way that is even a little different from what has been done before,” Institute for Justice senior attorney Bob McNamara said. “And as a result, courts in recent years have said that officers can steal cash, destroy homes and shoot children — all without any consequence at all.”
It’s not realistic to expect that police officers on the street consult attorneys or law books during the course of their duties, of course. But qualified immunity has swung so far in favor of public employees in recent years that the courts have tolerated egregious abuses under its name. Just ask the owners of a Colorado home who were left financially holding the bag after the property was destroyed in 2015 by police in pursuit of a shoplifting suspect.
The doctrine also makes it much more difficult for the victims of police misconduct or brutality to seek justice.
The Supreme Court has signaled it may revisit the issue of qualified immunity in the near future. Good. In addition, libertarian Rep. Justin Amash has introduced a bill to end the practice. It now has Democrat and Republican co-sponsors and deserves support.
■ Addressing unreasonable fines and fees imposed on criminal defendants. Many nonviolent and low-income offenders become trapped on a treadmill of joblessness, incarceration and recidivism when they can’t afford to pay fines that are often out of proportion to the offense. Their obligations can sometimes triple or quadruple from neglect, leaving them deeper in the hole.
“To raise revenue and make up for budget shortfalls, cities, states, courts, and prosecutors levy hefty fines at nearly every stage of the criminal justice system,” notes a 2018 essay on theappeal.org. “People leaving prison owe on average $13,607 in fines and fees. For those who are poor, these fees can be catastrophic.”
While defendants who can do so should pay restitution and cover other costs, it makes little sense to shackle those of little means with debts they can never pay. Community service or other alternatives would address the issue without helping trap many people in a permanent cycle of poverty.
The only options aren’t “do nothing” or “defund the police.” These reforms advocated by the Institute for Justice would create a more equitable system and increase trust between police and the communities they serve.