Should family members be imprisoned for the crimes of their relatives? Of course not! That kind of crap happens in North Korea and other dictatorships, but not in the good old USA.
Should family members be forced to pay fees or have their property seized for the crimes of a family member, or even when nobody is charged with a crime? Of course not! What if it helped to win the War on Drugs? Not even then. Most Americans oppose the seizure of property without a conviction, but I’m sorry to tell you that is exactly what has been happening. Oh, and by the way, many Americans also believe that the war on drugs has been a failure that has done nothing but cost us $1 trillion, resulted in 45 million drug-related arrests, and left 2.3 million citizens in prison.
For years, the families of prison inmates have had to pay exorbitant rates for phone calls with their loved ones in jail. I can hear some of you now—tough luck. “If you do the crime, you have to do the time.” Sure, but this isn’t about crime and punishment. This is about the people who didn’t do the crime, but are still paying a needless price for that crime. It is about mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands and wives, among others. In other words, it is about ordinary Americans who did nothing wrong and just want to have some kind of contact with their incarcerated relative. But our government has treated this as an opportunity to generate a profit.
For years, phone companies were allowed to charge over a dollar a minute in a country where the cost of phone calls has plummeted to nearly nothing. In the case of Internet phone calls, the cost really is nothing. Finally, in early 2014, the FCC imposed rate caps of $.25 per minute for debit calls and $.21 for collect calls. It is still probably too much, but is a huge victory for what was, in essence, a financial penalty imposed on the families of prisoners.
Why did these rates ever exist in the first place? I’m sure you can guess the answer. The correctional institutions chose telephone service providers that offered commissions, aka kickbacks. Yes, they shared in the profit and used it as part of their budget. So, the prison system helped to finance itself by charging the families of the inmates. Sounds like a minor issue, but it isn’t to the families involved, who often cannot afford the phone calls. But it is more than just the cost that bothers me. It’s the principle of how we treat our citizens, whether they are in jail or not.
The phone companies and the prison system colluded to make this happen, over years of objections from the families. Why didn’t Congress do anything to stop this? What politician wants to stick up for the rights of prisoners? Apparently, few to none. Sure, our founding fathers thought enough about the issue of crime and punishment to include a prohibition on excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, but apparently no current politician was willing to face this issue. So, my hat is off to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the unelected Chair of the FCC, for listening to the families and finally changing the regulations, even though they had to fight the telecommunications companies in court when they tried to block the new rules. Congress should be ashamed of itself, once again, for ignoring an issue affecting some of our most vulnerable citizens. This case shows that Congress cannot be relied upon to stand up for the rights of all citizens.
But there’s more. In just two years, Philadelphia law enforcement authorities have seized the homes or cars of almost 500 families. The law allows them to seize property that is connected to the sale of illegal drugs. If anyone within the house is charged with the sale of illegal drugs, including a child or a visitor, the government is legally able to seize the house, even if the owners had no knowledge of the illegal activity. They can even seize a car that a person drove away in after committing the crime of shoplifting.
In some states, the property owner has to be convicted of a crime before the assets can be seized, but this is not the case in all states. Pennsylvania has been very aggressive when it comes to seizing the assets of innocent citizens.
A 2014 Washington Post investigation has found that thousands of motorists and others have also had property seized. Some have even had property seized even though they were not charged with crimes, and have been forced to go to fight in court to get it back.
The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing civil asset forfeiture program allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired. That’s right, it sounds a lot like a complete disregard of our Fifth Amendment rights. It is like search and seizure of property without due process of law.
Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights):
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
As you might imagine, most Americans strongly believe that someone needs to be convicted of a crime before their property can be seized. They also don’t like to pay taxes to fund an unwinnable war that is partly being financed by violations of our constitutional rights.
I’m afraid I don’t have any good news to end this post. The government can seize your stuff even if you didn’t do anything wrong. Sounds like another reason to try and roll back the growth of government and end the war on drugs.
NOTE: This post was originally a guest post on the Nonsense & Shenanigans blog. I’m including this copy so that it can be edited, as needed, in the future.