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Seized Drug Assets to Be Used for Prisons

Times Staff Writer

In a move to use criminals’ ill-gotten gains against them, more than $95 million in assets forfeited by drug traffickers and organized crime figures will be spent on building more federal prison space to house them, Justice Department officials said Thursday.

In another new approach, federal prison officials are extending key privileges to inmates for their payment of court-imposed fines, previously considered virtually uncollectible. More than 19,000 inmates have paid $12 million toward their fines in the first 16 months of the program.

Officials disclosed the new tactics in a stepped-up effort to ease the record overcapacity problem at federal prisons and to collect criminal fines, which are channeled into victim assistance funds.

“Crime still doesn’t pay, but criminals do,” said Acting Associate Atty. Gen. Frank Keating in announcing the inmate financial responsibility program while visiting the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.

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Under the program, inmates who draw from their federal prison earnings or other funds to pay their fines can receive favorable consideration for assignment to halfway houses, improved work assignments and prison programs. In addition, the U.S. Parole Commission is advised on whether they are participating in the program, according to J. Michael Quinlan, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Applying forfeited assets to prison construction is the first use of a little-noted provision in Congress’ 1988 appropriations bill for the Justice Department. An amendment by Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) empowered the attorney general to transfer asset forfeiture funds to the Bureau of Prisons for construction at the end of the fiscal year, which closes today.

Among the projects for which the funds will be used are upgrading the federal prison camp at Lompoc, Calif., to the security level of a federal correctional institution; repairing and constructing prison facilities at Atlanta and Oakdale, La., that were destroyed during riots by Cuban inmates last December, and building detention units in Ft. Worth; Tallahassee, Fla., and Puerto Rico.

Holds Forfeited Property

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The U.S. Marshals Service, which maintains the asset forfeiture fund, now holds more than 16,000 properties subject to forfeiture, valued at more than $700 million. Forfeited property may be sold commercially or transferred to federal, state or local law enforcement agencies.

Keating said that 60% of the fines paid by the inmates in the financial responsibility program come from wages paid by prison industries, while 40% is drawn from other sources.

“This program represents a 180-degree turnaround from the commonly held view just 10 years ago that collecting fines from prisoners was nearly, if not actually, impossible,” Quinlan said.

Until the new program took effect, Keating said, unpaid fines were collected primarily by obtaining contempt orders against convicts after they were released on parole. “It was very difficult to get any funds from them while they were in prison,” he said.

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Fines paid by the prisoners go into the Crime Victims Fund, which is channeled to states for distribution to crime victims and their families.

Quinlan, noting that 99% of federal inmates earn money while incarcerated and that many have substantial assets outside prison, said: “Our goal is to encourage prisoners to take advantage of the opportunity to pay their financial obligations.”


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