This is a compelling analysis by Radley Balko of something that’s gotten a surprising and welcome boost of attention as a structural part of the hostility between residents and the criminal justice apparatus in places like Ferguson.
It’s by no means unique, however. Read this by Sarah Stillman in the New Yorker to grasp the way that a cottage industry of entrepreneurial police officers has spread aggressive civil forfeiture across the United States.
There’s deservedly a lot of attention focused on the the predatory nature of the processes in both of these articles–that poor residents, likely to be inadequately represented in the legal system, become cash cows. Stillman also focuses on the historical role of the War on Drugs in boosting asset forfeiture as a law enforcement tool and then as a revenue stream. It’s worth noting, though, that local governments jumped on forfeiture at a point in time when Federal aid to lower levels of government retrenched. Shortfalls had to be made up, and in the structure of interlocal competition that exists in the US, making them up by taxing the wealthy, businesses, or commercial or industrial property carries the risk of capital flight. The poor, in a bitter irony, have become important to strapped local governments because, although they don’t have many assets, they are fairly immobile.