The system of so-called “equitable sharing” of seized assets between the federal government and local police departments has long been a target for proponents of criminal justice reform, so when the feds shut the program down last year, people cheered. It turns out that the whole thing was just about budget cuts, however, and soon it will be back in full force.
Equitable sharing is a facet of civil asset forfeiture, the controversial practice by which police departments can take things like houses, cars and cash that they believe were used in the commission of a crime, without actually charging their owners with criminal wrongdoing. Under equitable sharing, local departments can prosecute their forfeiture cases under federal law, which allows them to keep up to 80 percent of the assets for their own use, according to the Washington Post—a much greater portion than some state laws allow.
There’s an obvious potential for abuse. A police department needs money, so it dubiously seizes a house from a suspected drug dealer—never mind if he’s only accused of selling $20 of weed, as was the case with a family profiled in the New Yorker a few years ago—and gets a huge payout for it from the feds. Budget crisis solved.
“Local law enforcement responds to incentives,” Lee McGrath of the reform-minded Institute for Justice told the Post after equitable sharing was suspended last year. “And it’s clear that one of the biggest incentives is the relative payout from federal versus state forfeiture. And this announcement by the DOJ changes the playing field for which law state and local [law enforcement] is going to prefer.”
But equitable sharing was only suspended in the first place because of federal budget cuts, which limited the payouts the government was capable of making to local departments. Now, the feds are solvent enough to continue those payments, and equitable sharing will continue, a DOJ spokesman tells the Post.
It turns out that the change was never about principles, as activists hoped it was. It was about money, and that’s it. Just like asset forfeiture itself.