The Alabama Legislature continues its schizophrenic approach to criminal justice, working toward needed reforms on the one hand while falling back on failed “tough on crime” polices on the other.
On the positive side of the ledger, state Sen. Arthur Orr’s bill to end civil asset forfeiture passed committee last week.
Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize the property of a person accused of a crime before that person is convicted — and sometimes even if the person never goes to trial. A person who is then acquitted of the charges or against whom the charges are dropped must then sue to get his or her property back.
All this amounts to punishment without first having been found guilty of breaking the law. It is an affront to our system of justice, yet civil asset forfeiture is widespread because law enforcement and prosecutors benefit materially from it, creating a constituency that maintains civil forfeiture is somehow vital to public safety. What civil forfeiture actually does is give law enforcement and prosecutors perverse incentives, especially when it comes to devoting their resources toward nonviolent crimes rather than violent ones.
Ending civil forfeiture doesn’t mean letting criminals off easy. Anyone actually convicted of a crime would still face the possibility of losing any ill-gotten gains they have accrued.
Orr, R-Decatur, has introduced similar legislation in past years without success, because of opposition from law enforcement.
Last week, Orr said civil asset forfeiture laws were designed to go after big drug dealers but instead are catching too many “little fish,” some never convicted of a crime, who have to pay civil court costs to get their property back.
With any luck, Orr’s bill will fare better this year and finally make it into law. Yet another bill moving rapidly through the state Legislature goes in the opposite direction.
Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, has introduced legislation that would allow local police to tap phone calls and online communications without involving federal law enforcement if there is probable cause to believe the person involved “is committing, has committed, or is about to commit certain felony drug offenses.”
That bill has already passed the full House with overwhelming support, 80-14. It now goes to the state Senate.
Civil liberties groups rightly worry about any expansion of wiretapping authority, which is prone to misuse and, like civil forfeiture, tends to catch lots of little fish in its net.
But there is also the issue of the Legislature expanding anti-drug enforcement, all the way down to and including anti-marijuana efforts, even as other states are legalizing marijuana for recreational use and while the state’s prisons are already packed with nonviolent drug offenders.
The federal government has sued the state for the inhumane conditions in its overcrowded prisons, the governor is preparing to put taxpayers on the hook for $2.6 billion over 30 years to build new prisons, and yet the Legislature is hunting for more nonviolent offenders to lock away.
It’s this one step forward, two steps back approach to criminal justice that has given Alabama the nation’s most dangerous prisons, despite reform efforts such as community corrections and drug courts.