We found it–it’s ours!

Civil asset forfeiture sounds confusing, and most Americans don’t know that it means drug enforcement officials can help themselves to people’s cash, cars and other belongings. Christopher Ingraham’s article in the October 1, 2015 issue of the New York Times is titled: Most Americans don’t realize it’s this easy for police to take your cash.  

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander calls forfeiture laws “Finders Keepers” and traces the practice of the police being able to seize cash and assets when enforcing drug laws back to 1970.  But it wasn’t until 1984 during the Reagan Administration that Congress amended the law that allowed all law enforcement agencies to retain the proceeds for their own use. Alexander continues, “ Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales.” [1]

When I read about this in The New Jim Crow, it shocked me, and then I remembered bringing up the idea of search warrants with my prison students in a civics class one day. It set off a firestorm with my students saying that the police could barge in and help themselves to anything they wanted. At the time, I found it hard to believe.

Several rules make it even worse. A mere suspicion that someone is involved in using or selling drugs is all that’s need for property to be seized; the owner has no right to counsel; and the burden of proof is on the owner. Few people can afford lawyers and do not want to challenge the government’s action for fear of criminal charges.

There are even more insidious aspects to this. I cannot imagine the anger, desperation, frustration and despair of having property seized only because the authorities are suspicious. For the police to be able to simply help themselves to someone else’s property opens the door to all kinds of abuse and corruption. More people need to know that this has persisted for decades, with reforms not going nearly far enough. As Alexander writes, “Despite all of the new procedural rules and formal protections, the law does not address the single most serious problem associated with drug-war forfeiture laws: the profit motive in drug-law enforcement.” [2]  No wonder the drug wars have continued!

Fortunately, there is bi-partisan support for reform of this practice. In a time of legislative gridlock, the beginnings of reform are sailing through both houses of the Michigan legislatures.


  1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, New York, 2012), 79.
  2. Ibid., 83.

Incarceration in Germany

What We Learned From German Prisons

EARLIER this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs…

READ MORE: What We Learned From German Prisons, NYTimes

 

How wonderful to have another perspective on how to treat people behind bars! Germany has a totally opposite approach to criminal justice to ours, training staff for several years so that it can effectively help people to be successful when they are released from prison. At its heart, Germany’s philosophy of how to treat people who have broken the law is about human dignity. In the United States, we are primarily about punishment. The statistics in the article say it all about which approach is better—for people who break the law and for society at large.

Our current focus on prison reform cannot be only about fixing sentencing guidelines or releasing people who are serving draconian sentences for non-violent offenses, though those steps are necessary. As Nicholas Turner and Jeremy Travis say, we must re-think our values. Also, we must ask ourselves how mere punishment–often with long periods in solitary confinement, and without education and robust, positive rehabilitation programs, make it possible for people to get out of prison and automatically become good citizens with good jobs to support themselves and their families. The article says that German prisoners are “expected to exercise good judgment.” My prison students taught me the simple lesson that if I treated them with respect, they treated me—and their fellow students—with respect. When I raised my academic expectations and told them they were capable of good work, they became successful students. When prisoners are treated as bad, throwaway people, often their behavior reflects that.

The article points out the fundamental differences between the two countries. In spite of—or maybe because of–Germany’s history of the Holocaust, they need to treat protect the human dignity of their incarcerated citizens. The authors state, “Most notably, America’s criminal justice system as constructed in slavery’s long shadow and is sustained today by the persistent forces of racism.”

Our current system has wrecked families and communities, and the damage will be felt for decades to come. We have a long way to go to fix our overwhelming prison problem, but this information provides hope that we can begin to change our thinking and move forward in more hopeful, ultimately sustainable, ways.