Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Asset forfeiture: buying their way out of jail

One of the core principles of our justice system is that justice should be blind and that it should apply impartially to all, regardless of race, class, gender or any other personal attribute. While I think everyone would admit that it is imperfectly implemented, it is still the ideal we aspire to. The government's asset forfeiture legislation - the Criminal Proceeds and Instruments Bill - will undermine this, by allowing the wealthy to effectively buy themselves a lesser sentence. Part 4 of the bill amends the Sentencing Act 2002 and inserts a clause which requires a court, when sentencing someone who has been convicted of an serious offence qualifying for asset forfeiture, to take into account:

  • any instrument forfeiture order made, or to be made, in respect of property used to commit, or to facilitate the commission of, the offence:
  • any forfeiture of that property by any other order or means arising from the offender's conviction:
  • any order for relief made in respect of that property and the nature of the relationship between the person who obtained the relief and the offender.

Furthermore, in determining the weight given to these matters, the court must also take into account

the value of the property that is the subject of the instrument forfeiture order or is otherwise forfeited

What this means is that the more that is given up through forfeiture, the lower the sentence. While it can be argued that this is simply changing one form of punishment for another, it raises the very real spectre of different standards of justice for rich and poor: those with assets they can give up will effectively be able to buy their way out of jail, while those without will serve maximum time. Which is exactly how it works in the US. In Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser mentions the case of "a major cocaine dealer with a fleet of Learjets" who received less than four years in prison despite being caught with twenty tons of coke - because he surrendered assets. He also reports "plea bargaining negotiations turn[ing] into haggling sessions worthy of a Middle Eastern souk" as prosecutors and defendants argue over exactly how much will be given up in exchange for a more leniant sentence. Meanwhile, those without anything substantial to give up watch from jail while the richer kingpins go free.

This is incompatible with our ideals of justice - but then, so are the Ahmed Zaoui standards of evidence which will allow the government to seize assets on nothing more than suspicion in the first place.

See also: Asset forfeiture index.


If it becomes a negotiation then rich people should have to pay more in order to reduce their sentances.
You could achieve the same incentives as well as a bit of income distribution.

Posted by Genius : 8/10/2005 09:08:00 PM

I personally agree with your comment, but I think that with appropriate safeguards, it should go ahead.

There is more to justice than punishing criminals. I don't buy into retributivism. In order to better benefit society, we should make those who can pay, pay.

This is slightly indignant to justice, in terms of just desert theory, but there are significant benefits. It gives victims' rights a serious place, it benefits wider society. Often forfeitures are targeted in places that prevent further crime.

In terms of appropriate standards, I am trying to acknowledge that there is a place for punishing criminals. Of course, the problem is with the details, but in general rich people can "pay" for their (in)justice.

Posted by T : 8/21/2005 06:07:00 PM