It feels odd when a writer you don't like comes up with a piece you do
like. In previous posts, this blog has lambasted Mark Ames of Pando
for his rather disgusting attacks on Glenn Greenwald. Ames damned Greenwald's new media venture for being backed by a libertarian sugar daddy, even though Pando is itself partially backed by a libertarian sugar daddy. The whole bitch-fight was infuriating and ridiculous.
So it somewhat pains me to recommend Ames' new article on Ferguson, which he sees as an illustration of libertarianism in action
Libertarians have been coming up with reform programs for our city police and criminal justice systems for a long time. In fact, some of these reforms have actually become law in places like Ferguson.
Take the shocking “discovery” — actually years in the making — that Ferguson shifted many of its revenue burdens away from taxpayers and onto something the New Yorker described as the city’s “offender-funded” justice system, designed to “shift the financial burden of probation directly onto the probationers…. charging petty offenders — such as those with traffic debts — for a government service that was once free.”
Much of the blame, says Ames, goes to Robert Poole, an influential libertarian writer with strong Koch connections.
More relevant to Ferguson, Poole proposed shifting as much of the costs of the criminal justice system onto the criminals — the “users” as he put it — in order to cut taxes and budgets:
“To date, it has always been assumed that the taxpayers must assume the full burden of court costs in criminal matters. But once the idea that the criminal is responsible for the costs imposed on the victim is established, the next logical step is to extend the idea to court costs.”
An NPR investigation earlier this year, “Guilty And Charged,” revealed how this Poole-inspired “user-fee” system — “Court Fees Bill Defendants For Their Punishment” — is now a standard feature in cities and towns everywhere:
“NPR’s investigations unit found that the practices in Ferguson are common across the country. The series reported that nationwide, the costs of the justice system are billed increasingly to defendants and offenders, and that this creates harsher treatment of the poor.”
This system rewards the police for criminalizing as many people as possible. In other words, law enforcement has become a racket. Everyone knows that a sufficiently strict interpretation of the law can make a "criminal" of anyone
(Many years ago, I read that the average driver makes seven citable mistakes with every trip. I'm not sure if that figure is correct, but if you pay very careful and honest attention to your driving, you'll probably come to a similar conclusion.)
Ames' piece goes on to discuss the restitution racket, although he doesn't go far enough. For a more in-depth look, I recommend checking out the video embedded above, in which Matt Taibbi dissects our injustice system. Even if you think you already know this material, Taibbi will stun you. (Yes, he takes a while to warm up, but what he has to say will definitely reward the investment of your time.)
This new debate on how police departments are funded should also focus on asset forfeiture -- the seizure of property from defendants, especially those suspected (not necessarily convicted) of drug violations. Here's an example
On November 18, 2009, Shukree Simmons, who is African-American, was driving with his business partner on the highway from Macon, Georgia, back to Atlanta after selling his cherished Chevy Silverado truck to a restaurant owner in Macon for $3,700 of sorely needed funds. As Mr. Simmons passed through Lamar County, he was pulled over by two patrol officers who stated no reason for the stop, but instead asked Mr. Simmons numerous questions about where he was going and where he had been, and even separated him from his business partner for extended questioning. The officers searched both people and the car, finding no evidence of any illegal activity. A drug dog sniffed the car and did not indicate the presence of any trace of drugs. Notwithstanding the total lack of evidence of criminal activity and Mr. Simmons’s explanation that he was carrying money from selling his truck, the officers confiscated the $3,700 on the suspicion that the funds were derived from illegal activity, pursuant to their authority under Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture law. Despite the fact that Mr. Simmons mailed his bill of sale and title for the truck to the officer, he was told over the phone that he would need to file a legal claim to get his money back.
This example is even more outrageous:
Consider the story of Javier Gonzalez: In August 2005, Gonzalez borrowed a car from his employer in Austin, Texas, and drove to Brownsville to visit his dying aunt and to make arrangements for her funeral. He brought more than $10,000 in cash to provide for her burial. On his way, Gonzalez was pulled over for having an improperly attached license plate. When officers found the cash, they handcuffed Gonzalez and took him in for investigation. A search revealed no drugs or contraband, but officers seized the money anyway. They told Gonzalez that he could either sign away his legal right to the cash or face money-laundering charges and have the car seized — despite a lack of any evidence of criminal activity. He signed away his rights. Gonzalez was fortunate enough to be able to hire a lawyer to challenge the forfeiture and, in 2008, three years after his money was taken, it was returned. Others are not so lucky.
Do the cops profit personally from these seizures? Oh yes:
As outlandish as these facts seem, this happens every day across the country to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Under federal law and the laws of 42 states, law enforcement officials are entitled to keep most (and sometimes all) of the money and property they seize. The money goes to pay for salaries, advanced equipment and, in one Texas county, travel to Hawaii for "training."
No wonder our cops are increasingly despised by the communities they are supposed to serve. The cops have become robbers.
Perhaps that devolution was inevitable. The real problem is libertarianism itself -- the libertarian mentality
. It has spread like a virus throughout our society. When greed and selfishness are seen as the sole virtues, every segment of our society will eventually become a kind of mafia -- including the police themselves.