- - Monday, March 23, 2015

Ronald Reagan, an eloquent proponent of federalism, called the several states the laboratories of democracy. The Gipper was on to something. State governments have a unique freedom to innovate, to experiment, to move “outside the box” to search for solutions to thorny public policy problems. The institutional bureaucracies, creatures of Congress, and special interest groups that pepper Washington policymakers with their demands can’t do it half as well. The states not only have rights the federal government doesn’t, but they have unique talents as well.

The governors of Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana are pushing labor law reforms, taking power away from the labor bosses and putting it back where it belongs — in the hands of the working men and women. They’re taking the lead on tax policy, on regulatory reform, on parental choice in education and other issues near and dear to the hearts of conservatives, and indeed all Americans.

Unfortunately, conservatives have not been so attentive to an issue that ought to be at the top of their agenda. The criminal and civil justice system begs for reform. Many states have adopted policies that mirror those embraced by the federal government, infringing constitutional liberties and worse, creating perverse incentives to drive law enforcement to act in ways that run counter to justice.

There’s evidence that changes are necessary, and there’s further evidence that the changes won’t come from Washington. One bright spot that both the left and the right can cheer is in New Mexico, where the legislature passed legislation over the weekend to abolish civil-asset forfeiture, which is nothing less than government crime, enabling police to seize private property and keep it without even having to charge someone with a crime.

This is an unconstitutional taking in anyone’s reading of the law, but the courts — an arm of the government, after all — have found otherwise, on the theory that seized property is theoretically recoverable if the victim of this government theft has the resources to go through the expensive process of getting it back, which is not often.

Not so long ago, when civil-asset forfeitures were first used to take cigarette boats and luxury sports cars from drug dealers, with the proceeds going to police departments, many thought the seizures were, if not just, at least tolerable. Who cares what happens to drug dealers? But since then the practice has spread, ensnaring innocents as well as the guilty, and people are starting to take a second and third look.

The governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, is expected to sign the measure, making it the law, and it could catapult her to consideration for a place on the Republican ticket next year. Under the law, a conviction for a specific crime must occur and it must be established that the seized property was used in the commission of that crime. The proceeds of the sale of seized property must go into the state’s general fund, not to a police department, removing the police incentive to finance their departments with creative law enforcement.

The landmark reform of the nation’s welfare system in 1996, one of the most successful social reforms of the second half of the 20th century, started in Michigan and Wisconsin. Eventually the Congress and President Bill Clinton followed their lead. Congress should look to the example in New Mexico to prevent this grievous wrong from further spread.

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