Research & Commentary: Further Reforms to Ohio’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws Could Address State’s Opioid Crisis

Published October 9, 2019

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Ohio ranked second in the nation for opioid-overdose deaths in 2017, with a reported 4,293 deaths—a “rate of 39.2 deaths per 100,000 persons.” The opioid epidemic in the Buckeye State is estimated to cost Ohio “between $6.6 billion to $8.8 billion a year,” according to an Ohio State University study.

Worse, Ohio’s economy has been ravaged by the crisis. According to the American Action Forum (AAF), an estimated 86,700 workers are absent from Ohio’s labor force due to opioid related deaths and health issues. AAF found that a “rise in opioid prescription from 1999 to 2015 … lowered [workforce] participation rates of prime-age men and women by 1.8 percentage points and 2.2 percentage points, respectively.” AAF estimates that from 1999 to 2015, “Ohio’s economy cumulatively lost $71.7 billion in real economic output.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes Ohio has received more than $140 million in State Opioid Response grants. Further, Ohio received $26 million from Congress’ 21st Century Cures Act, with 75.6 percent spent towards treatment. However, “19.8 percent funded prevention efforts and just 1 percent was aimed at recovery supports following treatment.” Because these programs are funded by the federal government, it is implausible for states to rely on continued funding in the future. For example, payments from the federal government to the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion coverage have dropped from 100 percent “to 95 percent in 2017, 94 percent in 2018, and 93 percent in 2019 and will settle at 90 percent in 2020 and each year thereafter.” It is highly likely that the federal government will not provide funds in the future to address an unabated opioid crisis in the states.

One reform Ohio could easily implement would be to relocate proceeds from criminal asset forfeitures to programs including rehabilitation, medication, and drug courts, in an effort to reduce costs related to the opioid epidemic.

In 2017, Ohio improved its civil asset forfeiture program. Amendments to the state’s law included the state having “the burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence,” and requiring criminal convictions or guilty pleas for property valued “at $15,000 or less” to be forfeited. Despite these revisions, there is still much room for Ohio to further reform its draconian forfeiture laws.

For example, forfeited funds are still routinely funneled to law enforcement with very little oversight or reporting requirements. The 2017 amendments to Ohio’s civil asset forfeiture laws still allow for all forfeited proceeds to be transferred to “the law enforcement trust fund of the prosecutor and to the following fund supporting the law enforcement agency that substantially conducted the investigation.” Moreover, the amendments did not reform reporting requirements. The Institute for Justice gives Ohio a grade of D because the Buckeye State tracks only five out of 20 “key details about seized property.”

Ohio could instantly improve forfeiture laws by requiring detailed accounting of seized funds as well as ensuring confiscated moneys from criminal convictions related to drug use is earmarked to programs that actually address the opioid crisis. Ohio lawmakers ought to follow the lead of Georgia policy makers in this arena. In 2015, the Georgia General Assembly passed H.B. 233, which reformed the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Under the “Georgia Uniform Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act,” proceeds from forfeitures can be used “for drug treatment, mental health treatment, rehabilitation, prevention, or education or any other program which deters drug or substance abuse or responds to problems created by drugs or substance abuse; for use as matching funds for grant programs related to drug treatment or prevention; to fund victim assistance; or for any combination of the foregoing.”

Fortunately, opioid overdose deaths are decreasing due to an increasing use of reversal drugs such as naloxone. Unfortunately, naloxone is extremely expensive, which has burdened communities throughout Ohio. For example, in 2017, the city of Middletown spent $90,000 on naloxone treatment, “50 percent more than its entire budget for all the medications aboard its ambulances.” Middletown officials stated the “heroin and opioid epidemic cost taxpayers more than $2.3 million in 2017.”

Naloxone does not cure opioid users of their addiction, but medication-assisted treatment (MAT), including buprenorphine, methadone, naltrexone, and suboxone are covered under Ohio’s Medicaid program. A 2018 report found Ohio’s Medicaid per-year costs of MAT “increased over 719 percent” from 2010 to 2016. In 2016, Ohio spent more than $110 million on MAT.

Drug courts can also help alleviate Ohio’s opioid crisis. Among Ohio’s 88 counties, 56 “have at least one drug court.” Drug courts reduce recidivism rates. Indeed, an analysis of Montgomery County’s drug group found 75 percent of the 107 women who graduated drug court from 2014 to 2017 did not have any “new criminal history since graduation.” Further, drug courts reduce costs. A 2005 analysis of Ohio drug courts found “that every dollar invested in drug courts can yield a net savings of $4.73.”

Put frankly, the opioid epidemic has taken a mighty toll on Ohio’s economy, crippled many communities, and devastated countless families. Relying on the federal government to address the issue is a strategy doomed to fail.

It is time for Ohio lawmakers to adequately address this burgeoning crisis, before more Ohioans are sucked into the opioid-addiction vortex. Ohio policy makers should utilize funds via criminal asset forfeiture seizures and reallocate money into programs that can treat Ohioans afflicted with the scourge of opioid addiction.

The following documents provide more information on the opioid epidemic and civil asset forfeiture.

Research & Commentary: Reforming Maine’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws Could Help Opioid Epidemic–commentary-reforming-maines-civil-asset-forfeiture-laws-could-help-opioid-epidemic
The Heartland Institute’s State Government Relations Manager Lindsey Stroud examines how Maine should reform its current civil asset forfeiture laws to “criminal asset forfeiture” and divert seized proceeds to programs including drug rehabilitation, counseling, and criminal court, among other programs aimed at decreasing opioid abuse.

Research & Commentary: State Medicaid Costs Associated with Opioid Use Disorder Tripled from 1999 to 2013–commentary-state-medicaid-costs-associated-with-opioid-use-disorder-tripled-from-1999-to-2013
In this Research & Commentary, Lindsey Stroud, state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute, examines a study by Penn State researchers which found the costs of the opioid epidemic to states’ Medicaid programs exceeded more than $3 billion in 2013. Stroud notes that “overall societal costs” of opioid use disorder, including health care, criminal justice and workplace costs have increased by over 565 percent.

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write.

Civil Asset Forfeiture, Equitable Sharing, and Policing for Profit in the United States
Jefferson E. Holcomb and Marian R. Williams, professors in the department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, a professor in the University of Texas–Dallas School of Economic, Political, and Policy Studies, identify the effects of civil asset forfeiture reform on law enforcement activities. They write, “There is substantial anecdotal evidence that law enforcement [agencies] utilize a variety of tactics to generate the greatest revenue from their forfeiture operations,” a hypothesis their analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics confirms. 

Seize First, Question Later: The IRS and Civil Forfeiture
Institute for Justice researcher Dick M. Carpenter II and attorney Larry Salzman examine the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws by the Internal Revenue Service. “Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime,” they write.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines several important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture. 

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation discusses how the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses has drawn the attention of news media and suggests the increased attention may lead to real reform.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws.

Inequitable Justice: How Federal ‘Equitable Sharing’ Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain
The Institute for Justice examines the federal law enforcement practice known as equitable sharing, which enables and indeed encourages state and local police and prosecutors to circumvent the civil forfeiture laws of their states for financial gain.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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