Kevin Drum is steamed about the larceny practiced by elements of the criminal justice system, from petty (charging arrestees for the “service” of booking, and then not giving all of it back), to grand (the civil forfeiture scam by which the police can take your car–or your house–and keep it if someone in the station house is willing to say he thinks you, or someone, used them nefariously).
Kevin is entirely correct, but this ongoing outrage is overshadowed by the official massacre playing out in the Philippines, whose president was elected on a platform promising that people can be shot (and he boasts of having blown away a few citizens personally) if someone thinks they sell, or use, drugs. Someone? Apparently this means the shooter, or some guy who told him something about somebody.
(We also have a case of nature imitating art here: the plot of Terry Gilliam’s immortal Brazil is set in motion when a fascistic, bureaucratic dictatorship arrests the wrong guy (who dies in custody) and feels obliged to return the arrest fees it collected to his family. Brazil, I may note, is a bitter, dystopian, satire.)
The concept central to understanding this stuff is central to all hard science and underappreciated in social science, namely the importance of operational definition. An operational definition is a assignment to categories, or a reported measurement, that includes the protocol–the operations–by which it was applied. Example: the ‘height of a building’, for most purposes, doesn’t need to specify the measurement process. But for others, it’s important to specify whether it was observed by lowering a measuring tape from the top, by surveying instruments and trigonometry back to an identified monument of accepted altitude, or by carrying an altimeter to the top and reading it; each of these will give a different number. Responsible experimental scientists report the brand and model number of measuring equipment used in lab procedures, as well as (when it might matter) ambient conditions and what the mouse had for dinner.
Never mind that capital punishment for drug use, or losing your house for dealing, let alone a relative’s dealing, are savageries in and of themselves. The implicit operational definition of a drug dealer, or one whose house may be confiscated in the cases above is quite far from the one we normally use to shoot or merely mulct people, and the press has a lot to answer for when it says Duterte and his vigilante thugs have “killed drug dealers”. The operational definition of “a drug dealer” used to allot punishment in civilized countries includes a finding of “guilty” after a whole series of steps from arrest with Miranda rights provided, through chain-of-evidence records, and a trial with its own specified protocols.
Duterte isn’t ‘shooting drug dealers’; he’s shooting people asserted to be drug dealers by, apparently, almost anyone: the guy’s romantic rival or business competitor, or an undertrained, underpaid cop’s on-the-spot guess. And our own cops aren’t confiscating “assets used in crime”, they are confiscating assets they covet when they are willing to make up a story. “Hey, you remember the guy we busted for meth two weeks ago [whose trial won’t start for six months]? His cousin has a nice new SUV, and car 233 was totaled in that wreck on the freeway. I bet the cousin gave him a ride in it sometime; let’s go pick it up!”