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A bill now before the New Jersey Legislature would allow law enforcement agencies to spend civil forfeiture funds on diversity training for officers, minority recruitment, and community outreach.
The legislation has raised eyebrows among criminal justice reformers, who have long lambasted civil forfeiture as a problematic police practice that disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color.
“These are worthy endeavors but using forfeiture to do it ignores the inherent harms of forfeiture funds and particularly the harms of using forfeiture funds in the same department that forfeits it,” said Alexander Shalom of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Civil forfeiture allows officers to seize property and money if they suspect it was connected to a crime. Supporters say it punishes lawbreakers, takes away their tools for crime, and redirects crime profits to law enforcement for crimefighting and victims for restitution.
Current law allows agencies to use forfeiture funds only for “law enforcement purposes,” meaning anything that assists in crime investigation, surveillance, crime prevention education, and coordination between agencies.
Under the bill introduced in January by Assemblyman Antwan McClellan (R-Cape May), agencies would be able to spend forfeiture funds on minority recruitment and diversity training, both oft-repeated priorities of the Murphy administration. McClellan introduced the bill in the last legislative session too, but it did not advance. It is scheduled to be heard Monday by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.
McClellan, who works as personnel and public information director in the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office, said the idea arose from talks he’s had with law enforcement, as well as a new coalition called Cumberland-Cape United, which helps at-risk youth.
Diversifying law enforcement is critically important, but it’s also an unfunded mandate, McClellan said.
“A lot of law enforcement agencies do want to recruit minorities, but you can’t dedicate someone every day to go out and recruit minorities,” McClellan said. “If this creates dedicated funds, it helps law enforcement so you don’t have to force a municipal agency to spend all their budget on recruitment.”
Reformers say legislators instead should restrict civil forfeiture, which they contend creates a profit motive for police departments and consequently tends to be overused and abused.
State lawmakers tweaked civil forfeiture laws in 2019 to forbid forfeiture if criminal charges don’t end in conviction.
But they made exceptions that allow forfeiture to proceed without a conviction, including in cases when no one claims the seized cash or property. The law also set conviction thresholds, allowing agencies to keep seized cash over $1,000 and seized property worth more than $10,000 without a conviction if they can link the cash or property to crime “by a preponderance of the evidence.”
Those thresholds are among the lowest nationally. Only Iowa’s is lower, said Marleina Ubel, a policy analyst with the New Jersey Policy Perspective.
The exceptions prompted the Institute of Justice, a Virginia-based, nonprofit, public interest law firm, to give New Jersey a grade of D- in a December 2020 report examining civil forfeiture laws nationally. New Jersey’s law has a “weak conviction provision” and creates an “innocent owner burden,” the institute said.
To remove the profit motive, Shalom said legislators should not allow agencies to keep 100% of forfeiture funds, as state law now permits, and instead put the money in the state’s general fund.
“If you have civil forfeiture, it should be allocated in a way that doesn’t incentivize its use,” Shalom said.
Ubel agreed: “Anytime there’s an incentive where the person being punished is paying for the system that is doing the punishment, that’s not a good situation.”
Ubel suggested legislators instead consider the approach they took in legalizing recreational marijuana, in which they required that 70% of weed proceeds be reinvested in communities most harmed by the failed war on drugs.
“A social justice rebate would be a really fantastic and innovative way to use forfeiture funds,” she said.
New Jersey’s law enforcement agencies seized $166 million in cash and property from the public through civil forfeiture from 2009 to 2019, according to an October report by the New Jersey Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The committee found the “worst trends” in civil forfeiture nationally plague New Jersey too, decrying the system here as “ripe for abuse” and saying it often leads to people having their assets seized wrongfully, with communities of color and low-income communities disproportionately impacted.
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