Marijuana prohibition costs the state and its municipalities an estimated $22 million a year, creates a dangerous backlog at the agency that tests forensic evidence in violent crimes, and needlessly ensnares thousands of people – disproportionately African Americans – in the criminal justice system, according to a report released today by Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The study – Alabama’s War on Marijuana: Assessing the Fiscal and Human Toll of Criminalization – is the first of its kind to examine the fiscal, public safety, and human toll of marijuana prohibition in the state.

Among the report’s findings:

  • The overwhelming majority of people arrested for marijuana offenses from 2012 to 2016, nearly 89 percent, were arrested for possession.
  • Despite studies showing black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, black people were approximately four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession (both misdemeanors and felonies) in 2016 – and five times as likely to be arrested for felony possession.
  • Alabama spent an estimated $22 million to enforce the prohibition against marijuana possession in 2016 – enough to fund 191 additional preschool classrooms, 571 more K-12 teachers or 628 more corrections officers.
  • The enforcement of marijuana possession laws has created a crippling backlog at the state agency tasked with analyzing forensic evidence in all criminal cases, including violent crimes.

“Alabama’s war on marijuana is a monumental waste of tax dollars, undermines public safety, and is enforced with a staggering racial bias,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “The impact of an arrest for possessing marijuana is often significant, and the consequences can last for years. Even an arrest for the possession of a small amount of marijuana can upend somebody’s life by limiting their access to employment, housing and college loan programs, and leaving them trapped in a never-ending cycle of court debt.”

The report identified wildly disparate arrest rates for white and black people in certain jurisdictions. Among the 50 law enforcement agencies that arrested the most people for possession, seven arrested black people at 10 or more times the rate of white people. Those jurisdictions are: Huntsville, Dothan, Gulf Shores, Pelham, Troy, Etowah County, and Decatur.

“Alabama continues to shoot itself in the pocketbook with harsh, outdated laws that create needless suffering for its residents, particularly for black people who are still living with the legacy of Jim Crow,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “It’s past time to reform laws that perpetuate discrimination.”

A fiscal analysis conducted by economists at Western Carolina University found that the enforcement of marijuana possession laws – the police and prosecutors’ work, the court hearings and trials, and the incarceration of people in local jails and state prisons – came with a price tag of $22 million in 2016.

“Each of the 2,351 marijuana arrests in 2016 involved a judge, a clerk, law enforcement officers, forensics, storage, and prosecutors, all paid for by Alabama’s taxpayers,” Dr. Angela Dills and Dr. Audrey Redford, economics professors with the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise at Western Carolina University, said in a joint statement. “Taken together, we estimate the cost of enforcing Alabama’s marijuana possession laws to be $22 million in 2016 alone.”

These arrests alter the lives of many, leading to jail time and costing thousands of dollars in court fines and fees – sometimes at the expense of children or other family members.

Kiasha Hughes, whose story is told in the report, dreamed of becoming a medical assistant, but because of a marijuana offense she now works at a chicken plant and struggles to provide for her children. Nick Gibson was a student at the University of Alabama when a marijuana possession charge derailed his education.

And in Montgomery, Wesley Shelton was held 15 months in jail – prior to adjudication of his felony charge – for having $10 worth of marijuana and because he couldn’t afford to pay bail. The report finds Montgomery County likely wasted about $21,000 to house Shelton in the county jail.

“Alabama should follow the lead of other states that have realized marijuana prohibition is self-defeating and counterproductive,” Graybill said. “We’re draining scarce resources and driving people further into poverty – and there’s no public safety benefit. Even Mississippi has decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.”

Marijuana prohibition also threatens wider public safety, the report found. The significant backlog at the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences caused by the demand for drug sample tests has siphoned resources away from the agency’s Forensic Biology/DNA lab. That lab now faces a backlog of 1,121 cases, of which about half are “crimes against persons,” or homicides, sexual assaults and robberies.

“Now in its fourth decade, the war on drugs has failed to eradicate or even diminish marijuana use,” Knaack said. “In 2016 alone Alabama spent over $22 million on the enforcement of its marijuana possession laws. At the same time, the state agency tasked with analyzing forensic evidence in all criminal cases, including violent crimes, faced a crippling backlog. It’s time for Alabama to invest its resources on strategies and programs that will help keep our communities safe – investigating serious crimes and providing substance abuse and mental health programs.”

National opinion has moved significantly in recent years in favor of decriminalizing and/or legalizing marijuana possession. Polls show that 61 percent of Americans now support full legalization.

October marks Pro Bono Month, in which Alabama celebrates the difference made by pro bono lawyers throughout the state who serve our communities by providing free civil legal aid to those in need.

These volunteer lawyers–along with lawyers from Legal Services Alabama and clinics–help level the playing field and expand access to justice for low-income Alabamians.

For instance, in housing cases the deck is usually stacked against tenants.

While approximately 90% of landlords are able to hire a lawyer to represent them, only 10% of tenants have legal representation. This gives landlords an advantage over tenants who may have limited knowledge of the intricacies of the law, and therefore makes it more likely that the landlord will prevail in the case. On the other hand, tenants who are represented by counsel are much more likely to remain in their home in the face of eviction.

The lack of access to counsel–and especially civil legal aid–is not limited to just housing cases. Last year, more than 422,000 low income households experienced over 733,000 legal issues, including veterans seeking their benefits, workers at risk of having wages illegally garnished, and Alabamians facing domestic abuse. Yet due to Alabama’s lack of adequate funding and resources for this necessary service, approximately 84% of the civil legal needs of eligible Alabamians went unmet.

This dire lack of access to representation can be attributed to Alabama being only one of two states that fails to provide funding for civil legal services.

The need to fully fund these services is illustrated by the case of Bridgette Morrow, a low-income mother in Tuscaloosa.

From the time she first started renting the home in 2016, Ms. Morrow wanted for her family what all Alabamians want: safe and decent living conditions.

Instead, she found herself living in a house that lacked basic plumbing, with defective smoke detectors and faulty electrical wiring, among many other hazards.

Ms. Morrow, who lives below the poverty level, spent approximately $2,500 of her own money to install plumbing and subflooring. The landlord refused to address the other dangerous issues, so Ms. Morrow attempted to make the repairs on her own.

She also reported her landlord to authorities for his egregious violations of the law. As retaliation, he evicted her.

Ms. Morrow could not afford an attorney, so the Civil Law Clinic at the University of Alabama School of Law, along with the pro bono support from the firm Winston & Strawn LLP helped her sue her former landlord to recover the money she had spent repairing his property.

A lower court ruled in favor of the landlord, who argued that her right to sue ended with her eviction – as though a person imminently facing homelessness due to eviction should be expected to file a lawsuit in the middle of desperately seeking shelter.

Morrow’s civil legal aid lawyers appealed her case. Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama, filed an amicus curiae brief in support of upholding the rights of Ms. Morrow–and all tenants throughout the state–to hold their landlord accountable for their violations of the law.

In April 2018, the Court of Civil Appeals reversed the lower court and ruled that tenants like her can sue their landlord after the eviction process ends. This allowed Ms. Morrow to sue her landlord to recover for the funds and labor she put into trying to make the home safe.

Her civil legal aid lawyers stood by her side through the end, as they represented her until she finally recovered $5,000 from the landlord.

While Morrow was able to receive the legal representation she needed, this is seldom the case for low income Alabamians who face a legal issue.

Despite the vital needs faced by low income Alabamians, civil legal aid providers in Alabama rely primarily on federal funds to operate. An annual funding gap of approximately $36.6 million leaves the needs of almost 84% of low-income households unmet each year.

Civil legal aid is not only essential to Alabamians in need, it also provides substantial benefits to Alabama’s communities. As a recent study from the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation found, of every $1 invested in Alabama civil legal aid services, the citizens of the state receive almost $12 in economic benefits. That is a Social Return on Investment of 1,195%, which means tens of millions of dollars in value added to Alabama communities.

The best way to honor the selfless work of pro bono lawyers and expand access to those services is for Alabama to start investing in civil legal aid to ensure all low-income residents have equal access to Alabama’s justice system.

A new report finds that many Alabamians report sacrificing food, medicine, and other basic necessities — and in some cases, resorting to crime — to pay down unnecessarily burdensome court costs, fines, and fees. More than eight in ten Alabamians gave up necessities like food and medicine to pay down court costs, fines, fees, or restitution. Nearly four in ten committed a crime in hopes it would help them pay down their court debt. These are just two of the findings in a report on the collateral harms of criminal justice debt released today from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, University of Alabama at Birmingham Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities (UAB TASC), Greater Birmingham Ministries, and Legal Services Alabama.

The report – Under Pressure: How fines and fees hurt people, undermine public safety, and drive Alabama’s racial wealth divide – chronicles the experiences of nearly 1,000 Alabamians who are paying court debt either for themselves or for other people and reveals how this system tramples the human rights of all poor people who come through it, no matter their races or backgrounds. It also shows how Alabama’s racial wealth divide, coupled with the over-policing of African-American communities, means that African Americans are disproportionately harmed.

Because Alabama has rejected equitable mechanisms for funding the state and has instead created a system where courts and prosecutors are revenue collectors, each year Alabama’s municipal, district, and circuit courts assess millions of dollars in court costs, fines, fees, and restitution. Most of this money is sent to the state General Fund, government agencies, county and municipal funds, and used to finance pet projects.

“Our courts and prosecutors are supposed to be focused on the fair administration of justice,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Instead, because they are placed in the role of tax assessors and collectors, they are often forced to levy harsh punishments on those unable to pay. As a result, Alabamians who cannot afford their fines and fees must make unconscionable choices – skipping food or medicine or committing crimes to pay down their court debt. Alabama must stop trying to fund the state off the backs of poor people. It is inhumane, makes us less safe, and undermines the integrity of Alabama’s legal system.”

This hidden tax is disproportionately borne by poor people – particularly by poor people of color. In Alabama, African Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at higher rates than white people. For example, while African Americans and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, African Americans are over four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama.

“The over-policing of African-American communities means African Americans are far more likely than white people to face court debt,” said Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries. “This is made worse by Alabama’s legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, coupled with modern-day structural racism, which has left African-American Alabamians disproportionately impoverished as compared to their white peers. Thus, not only do the racial disparities in the enforcement of Alabama’s criminal laws make African Americans more likely to face court debt, but also Alabama’s racial wealth divide means that African Americans are more likely to face the harsh punishments placed on those who cannot afford to pay.”

The report highlights Alabama’s two-tiered justice system. People with the resources to make timely payments experience fine-only violations as costly nuisances at worst. They can minimize the fallout even from criminal charges by paying to participate in diversion programs that result in either reduced penalties or clean records if successfully completed. People without ready access to cash, meanwhile, find themselves in escalating cycles of late fees, collections fees, loss of driver’s licenses, jail time, and life-altering criminal records.

“Equal justice under law does not exist when a person’s punishment is determined by their wealth rather than their actions,” said Knaack. “For example, access to diversion programs are often based on nothing more than an individual’s financial well-being. Thus, people who commit the same act face very different punishments because of nothing more than how much money they have. This two-tiered justice system should have no place in Alabama.”

The report examines the collateral consequences of Alabama’s court debt system and explores the ways in which it undermines public safety and drives the state’s racial wealth divide. It was funded in part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which through its Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt, is developing strategies to lessen the impact of criminal and civil judicial fines and fees, as well as medical fees, and high-cost consumer products on communities of color.

The report can be found here.

by Phil Ensler, Policy Counsel 

Victims of domestic violence, tenants facing eviction, and veterans seeking their benefits are among the thousands of low-income Alabamians who receive free legal assistance from civil legal aid attorneys because they cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.

Despite the essential need for these services, Alabama is one of only two states that does not fund civil legal aid. Instead, legal aid providers in Alabama rely on the federal government, non-profit organizations, and sometimes municipalities for funding.

This  leaves thousands of Alabama’s most vulnerable residents without access to lawyers. It is also a bad business decision, with far-reaching consequences for our local economies.

According to a recent study published by the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, for every $1 invested in civil legal services, Alabama communities received almost $12 of immediate and long-term economic benefits. That is an extraordinary social return on investment of 1,195% that amounts to a value of over $200 million gained from civil legal services.

Despite these benefits, civil legal aid in Alabama is grossly underfunded. Alabama is the lowest funded state for civil legal aid at a rate of $9.85 per eligible person. This amounts to half of the national average of $20 per person, and is a stark contrast to the highest funded state, which is 11 times greater than Alabama. In 2016, $8.9 million was spent in Alabama on civil legal aid. In order to meet the national average, Alabama would need to increase its spending to $18 million, and to fully meet the needs of all eligible Alabamians it would need to spend $45.5 million. By fully funding civil legal aid, Alabama would not merely be spending money to ensure that all Alabamians have access to justice, but also making a wise investment in our economy.

Funding civil legal services yields such a high return on investment because legal aid providers represent low-income Alabamians in a range of areas that impact the economy, including housing, employment, family issues, public benefits, consumer protection, and community issues.

These services can help a family keep a roof over their heads and avoid homelessness. For others, it means restructuring crippling debt to avoid financial ruin.  For some elderly clients, this help means a recovery of social security payments or other federal benefits that had been mistakenly suspended. For some veterans, it secures much-needed and hard-earned benefits. For others, these services means better, safer custody arrangements for children or even a long-awaited adoption.  

All of these outcomes strengthen our local economies, helping people remain in their homes, protect their wages, and resolve disputes that allow them to better support themselves and contribute positively to their communities. Alabama would be wise to heed the findings of the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation study and start investing in civil legal services.

To learn more about our work to ensure access to justice for all Alabamians, check out our website.

by Leah Nelson, researcher and Dana Sweeney, organizer

Payday industry supporters have often claimed that “neither the general public nor the so called ‘poor’ [are] clamoring” for payday lending reform in Alabama.

Actual borrowers might beg to differ.

Between October 2016 and September 2017, the State Banking Department reported that nearly 215,000 Alabamians took out 1.8 million payday loans – more than eight loans per customer, on average. Each of those loans represents an untold story of struggle where borrowers were forced to weigh the urgent need for cash against the prospect of repaying predatory lenders who charge interest rates as high as 456 percent APR and can demand full repayment within as few as 10 days.

Publicly available comments made by Alabama borrowers to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) show that for some, payday loans turn out to be a far greater financial burden than what drove them to payday lenders in the first place. These self-reported stories offer a small but representative window into the horrors of predatory lending for many Alabamians.

Writing in March 2015, an individual who borrowed $300 from a payday lender said they were receiving harassing phone calls every day from a lender who was automatically deducting money from their bank account, leading to hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees and forcing them to close their account. “I paid out a lot of money to the Bank for these transactions, money they could have had if they would not have kept trying to debit my account. I am so tired of this and I don’t know nothing else to do except not answer the phone,” the borrower wrote.

In May 2016, a borrower wrote that their payday lender was threatening to track them down at work. “They call me all day every day and if I fail to answer them they will call my sister, aunt, mom and harass them too.”

“I ‘m having to pay over $1000.00 for a $400.00 loan that I was told was paid for and that my balance was $0.00,” a borrower who had paid off their loan in full, only to have their bank account garnished in connection with unpaid fees, wrote in February 2017. “This is absolutely insane. How is this not illegal?”

“I was making payments until I lost my job and I contacted agency to see if I could postpone my payments until I began working again they refused my attempt and I haven’t heard from them since until today I received an email threatening to arrest me,” wrote an individual in May 2017.

“Been paying this company 2 payments every 2 weeks. They was only surposed to get 1 payment a month but taking out 2 every 2 weeks,” wrote another in May 2017. “I can’t pay my regarler bills because of this.”

“Though I do work full time I am struggling to pay off debt,” a single mother who was working with a debt consolidation program to pay off her various creditors, wrote in July 2017. The payday lender, she wrote, “has called my phone, my job, friends and family relentlessly!!   They harass me on a daily basis!! I told them about me going through the debt consolidation place and they got very very nasty, saying they aren’t participating in this program, and demanding Money NOW!!”

The CFPB did what it could to follow up with lenders and help customers resolve, or at least gain clarity, about what was happening to them. A handful of cases were “closed with monetary relief.” But the majority were “closed with explanation” – that is, the only relief the borrower received was an understanding of why the lender was allowed to do what it was doing.

For desperate people seeking help with unmanageable debt, that’s no relief at all.

In Alabama, borrowers continue to find themselves crushed by rapidly ballooning debt traps and loans continue to be issued with triple-digit APRs. Many other states have passed successful reforms, including our Southern, business-minded neighbors in Georgia, Arkansas, and North Carolina, which eliminated payday lenders entirely without significantly impacting borrowers’ access to cash. But our legislature failed again this year by refusing to pass the simple 30 Days to Pay bill, even though the status quo harms thousands of Alabamians and other states have demonstrated that responsible reform is possible. That’s why predatory lending reform is supported by a diverse coalition including Alabama Appleseed, the State Baptist Convention, the United Methodists, the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Birmingham Business Alliance. Here in Alabama, that’s about as broad-based as it gets.

And we need our state leaders to listen now more than ever. At the national level, new leadership at the CFPB has steered the agency away from its mission of protecting consumers from abuse by large banks and corporations. Recent months have seen the CFPB refusing to enforce the federal judge-ordered punishment of a payday lender caught stealing millions of dollars from its customers, musing about eliminating basic guardrails meant to keep payday lenders from scamming borrowers, and even proposing that public comments made to the CFPB by consumers—like those featured in this article—be hidden from the public. Alabama lawmakers can no longer wait or depend on the CFPB to fix an issue that was created by the Alabama State Legislature. Lawmakers’ earliest opportunity to address this issue will be the upcoming 2019 Legislative Session, and after failing Alabamians again and again, they should finally take it.

Until then, though, Alabama borrowers will have to wait yet another year for relief – and payday lenders will get another year to line their pockets by fleecing our communities. Let’s make sure that they won’t be made to wait again.

My name is Alexis Nail and I am from Gadsden, Alabama and an upcoming junior at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. I am a major in Political Science with a minor in Human
Rights and Conflict Studies. I am currently working towards receiving a distinction in Leadership Studies on my diploma, and I plan to attend law school. Based off this alone, you can see why I would chose to work at a place like Alabama Appleseed! I am thrilled to be interning with Alabama Appleseed this summer and I am looking forward to all the new learning experiences I will have while here!

While I have always been interested in law, it wasn’t until I was introduced to a certain professor in college that I realized my passion for human rights. My freshman year I took a class called American Inequality, and it opened my eyes to how much injustice there is in the United States and the barriers that impoverished people face. I had always known there was inequality, but I had never been able to articulate the in-depth, systemic problems that impoverished people face. Through our readings of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Our Kids, and other works, I was able to see factual research on inequality and the many facets of it. Although our readings may not have always left me in the best of moods, it fired up my passion to do more in the world and to give my life and the lives of others meaning. We also were required to volunteer at different organizations around Birmingham, and this helped me to think critically about poverty and helped me see reflections of my in-class learning in everyday life. My class discussions and discussions with my professor were not only meaningful but have influenced my career path. Since taking this class, I have since added Human Rights Conflict Studies to my diploma, as well as Leadership Studies. I have also been heavily involved in efforts for change, including lots of volunteer work. I have spent the past two Spring Breaks traveling to different parts of the country to help provide aid for those in need, and I regularly volunteer at programs like First Light Women’s Shelter in Birmingham. Although I love volunteering, I desire to do more for people and to have a direct hand in making a positive change in the lives of others. American Inequality, along with other classes, and my community partnerships have shown me that I care more about the lives I touch, than the accolades that I may receive through my work.

Although I am very early in my career, interning with Appleseed feels like a natural progression
into the work that I plan to do, especially because many of their campaigns have aligned with subjects
that I have touched upon in my studies. Some of these topics include homelessness, criminalization of
the poor, and access to justice. Being subject to these issues not only violates human rights, but it
violates human dignity. Working with Alabama Appleseed will allow me to be able to delve deeper into
these subjects while also seeing real efforts for change across the state of Alabama. Appleseed also
incorporates the idea of going out into the community, which aligns well with my love for volunteering
and meeting those who we are advocating for. A crucial part of wanting to be an advocate for change is
to be prepared for all the hard work that goes into it. I look forward to seeing and participating in the
work that goes on behind the scenes. My hope for my time here is to make meaningful connections with
my colleagues and make significant moves towards bettering the lives of Alabamians.

by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

If you had asked your legislator last year about their stance on civil asset forfeiture, jail food, or marijuana reclassification you would likely have heard confusion about the first two and opposition to the third. That’s no longer the case.

While our legislation to end civil asset forfeiture, stop sheriffs from personally profiting from money meant to feed people in their jails, and reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil offense did not pass the legislature, we made substantial progress.

In January we, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, released a report documenting serious abuses occurring under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws. It documented how laws meant to go after drug kingpins have been turned into tools for law enforcement to supplement their budgets by taking property from innocent Alabamians. The report catapulted the issue into the public debate and set the stage for bipartisan supported legislation to end this abusive program in Alabama.

While the legislation did not pass the full legislature, it did pass the Senate and is well positioned to prevail next session.

We will continue to face opposition from law enforcement, who make millions of dollars each year from civil asset forfeiture. Fortunately, sunlight has finally penetrated this long-abused program …  

State News:

  • Al.com – Alabama lawmakers propose ending civil asset forfeiture by police
  • Montgomery Advertiser – Alabama lawmakers propose ending civil asset forfeiture by police
  • WSFA – AL civil forfeiture laws go under the microscope
  • WTVM – Lawmakers push for bill to end civil forfeiture
  • WTVY – Alabama lawmakers propose ending civil asset forfeiture by police
  • Dothan First – Civil Asset Forfeiture

National News:

  • Fox – Despite promises to cut back, fed and state governments press asset forfeitures
  • Reason – Alabama Raked in $2.2 Million in Civil Asset Forfeiture in 2015
  • Esquire – Ethics Issues? Just Torpedo the Ethics Committee!

Op-eds/Columns:

Editorials:

Our work with the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) to stop sheriffs from personally pocketing taxpayer money meant to feed people in their jails has also dominated the news. In January we, with SCHR, filed a lawsuit challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails. As Connor Sheets’ terrific reporting has shown, sheriffs are becoming rich (from taxpayer dollars) while the people in their jails are fed food “not fit for human consumption.”

Our work with the SCHR will continue until all sheriffs understand that taxpayer dollars given to them to purchase food for people in their jails are to be used to purchase food for people in their jails.

In the meantime, sheriffs who oppose our position may want to read this …

State News:

  • Times Daily – Statewide legislation would change jail food law
  • WBRC – 49 Alabama sheriffs being sued over jail food money
  • AL.com – Dietary needs unmet in some Alabama jails as concerns mount on use of sheriff food accounts
  • AL.com – Alabama legislation could stop Etowah sheriff from keeping jail food money
  • Yellowhammer – Alabama sheriff pocketing $750,000 in jail-food money draws new attention to old law
  • WCBI – Lawsuit Filed Against 49 Alabama Sheriffs
  • AL.com – Alabama sheriffs pocket tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars allocated to feed inmates
  • WAAY – 6 North Alabama Sheriffs Named in Lawsuit over Funds for Feeding Inmates
  • Lagniappe – Lawsuit seeks transparency in sheriffs’ food funds

National News:

  • CBS News – Alabama sheriff legally used $750K in inmate food funds to buy beach house
  • Daily Kos – Meet the Alabama sheriff who kept hundreds of thousands in inmate food funds for personal use
  • National Review – Alabama Sheriff Used $750,000 in Taxpayer Funds to Purchase Houses
  • Newsweek – Alabama Sheriff Allegedly Purchased Home with Money Meant to Feed Jail Inmates
  • ABA Journal – 49 Alabama sheriffs are sued over refusal to say whether they pocketed leftover inmate-meal money
  • The Daily Beast – Alabama Sheriffs Filled Their Wallets by Starving Prisoners
  • Associated Press – Groups sue, aim to learn if sheriffs profit from jail food
  • Associated Press – Enjoying leftovers: Sheriffs feed inmates, keep extra cash

Op-eds/Columns:

  • AL.com – When sheriffs go bad, public records are the best defense
  • AL.com – Alabama sheriff pocketed more than he spent on jail food
  • AL.com – 49 Alabama sheriffs hide jail food funds, flout open records law

Editorials:

We also saw major progress with our work to reclassify marijuana possession in Alabama. Every year Alabama needlessly ensnares thousands of people in the criminal justice system for the mere possession of marijuana. This policy decision is costing Alabama taxpayers over $10 million each year and misuses law enforcement resources. Worse, it is enforced along color lines. While African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, in 2016 African Americans were over 4.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan effort to reclassify the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a fine-only offense passed the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee. While that might not seem like a big deal, it is. Members from both parties in the Alabama legislature have now gone on the record in support. We will continue to educate Alabamians about the need for this common sense reform and hope to prevail in 2019.

Stay tuned.

by Leah Nelson, Researcher 

In 1972’s Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that death penalty schemes that led to arbitrary results – for instance, those that allowed similar offenses committed by similar individuals to lead to different sentences – were unconstitutional. The result was a de facto moratorium on the death penalty nationwide, while states worked to make their laws more just.

Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the high court decided that the death penalty itself can be constitutional, provided that it was meted out only in clear, objective, and limited sets of circumstances, reviewable on appeal, and where the sentencer was permitted to take the defendant’s character and history into account when deciding whether to impose a sentence of death.  

Fast forward to today in Alabama.

There are 19 capital offenses under Alabama law –  each a distinct type of murder for which the death penalty can be sought. There are also 10 aggravating circumstances, which can be offered to a jury for consideration as it decides whether or not to impose a death sentence after finding a defendant guilty. Between them, the two sections make it possible for almost any homicide, committed under nearly any circumstance, to result in a death sentence.

This past legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would have created an additional aggravating circumstance. HB 161, sponsored by Rep. Chris Sells (R-Greenville), would have added to both sections, making the murder of a first responder operating in an official capacity a capital offense and adding three victim types – law enforcement officers, first responders, and children under 14 – to the list of aggravating circumstances.

The bill passed in the House, but failed to pass the Senate. It did not become law, nor should it. HB 161 would have expanded Alabama’s broken death penalty system. This fact is no less true today than it was in 2006, when eight distinguished Alabama attorneys comprising the American Bar Association’s Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Team concluded, bluntly, that “the State cannot ensure that fairness and accuracy are the hallmark of every case in which the death penalty is sought or imposed.”

In its report, the ABA Assessment Team identified seven problem areas in desperate need of reform, including:

  • Inadequate indigent defense services at trial and on direct appeal;
  • Lack of defense counsel for state post-conviction proceedings;
  • Lack of a statute protecting people with intellectual disabilities from execution;
  • Lack of a post-conviction DNA testing statute
  • Inadequate proportionality review (i.e., inadequate review of disparities in imposition of the death penalty across socio-economic, geographic, racial, or other lines);
  • Lack of effective limitations on the “heinous, atrocious, or cruel” aggravating circumstance (i.e., a failure to require prosecutors to prove that a particular capital murder was grimmer than most before invoking this aggravator); and
  • Capital juror confusion (specifically, research at the time showed that a majority of Alabama capital jurors interviewed misunderstood basic principles about their role and responsibility with regard to deciding whether a death sentence was called for, suggesting that jurors are recommending death sentences based on serious legal errors).

To date, the state has implemented only one of the assessment team’s primary recommendations – the elimination of an Alabama law that allowed judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole in favor of death. The rest have languished, while the state’s machinery of death chugs grimly along.

Since the report’s release in June 2006, the state has executed 29 people. Five of them were killed in the last year alone.

The ABA Assessment Team in 2006 called on Alabama to impose a moratorium on executions. As they stated:

“Regardless of one’s feelings about the morality of the death penalty, we all understand that, as a society, we must do all we can to ensure a fair and accurate system for every person who faces the death penalty. When a life is at stake, we cannot tolerate error or injustice. The Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Team found a number of problems in the state’s death penalty system that undermines its fairness and accuracy. Highlighted below are proposed areas for reform that would help to improve the system. Until these reforms are implemented, a temporary moratorium on executions should be imposed.”

The virtues of the death penalty may be debatable, but the merits of fairness and accuracy are not.

The state of Alabama should not carry out one more execution, nor tinker further with its death penalty laws, until and unless it addresses the gaps that led the ABA team, over a decade ago, to condemn the system’s failures.

by Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel

This past legislative session, Alabama Appleseed worked to improve on access to justice for low-income individuals in our state by advocating for two important pieces of legislation.

While some legislators in both the House and Senate supported these bills, the full state legislature was not given the opportunity to vote on these necessary changes.  

We advocated for SB 36, which would have ensured that backlogs in the fee-waiver system couldn’t prevent low-income Alabamians from being heard in civil court.

Filing fees for civil lawsuits can run into the hundreds of dollars, a prohibitive cost for low-income Alabamians struggling to pay for rent, groceries, utilities, and other necessities. Individuals who cannot afford these fees have a right to apply to have them waived, but applications can sit for months without any action.

This is problematic. Many civil causes are constrained by statutes of limitations, often running a year or two, which mean that individuals who wish to file lawsuits must do so by a certain deadline. But backlogs in the fee-waiver system mean judges may not decide on waiver applications until after the relevant statute of limitations has ended. As a result, low-income individuals have been denied the ability to have their case heard merely because the court failed to review their waiver application before the deadline.

This bill would have fixed a real-world problem. Coretta Arrington’s six-year-old son drowned after he gained unsupervised access to the swimming pool in their apartment complex. Ms. Arrington alleged that the property owner was at fault for her son’s death because they failed to have lifeguards and other safety measures in the pool area. But, she was unable to hold the property owner accountable because she could not afford the filing fees required to bring the case.  She sought a fee waiver, but by the time the court got around to approving her application, the statute of limitations period in which she would have legally needed to bring the case had expired. As a result, she was denied the opportunity to seek justice in the courts for the death of her child.

SB36 would have ensured that individuals like Ms. Arrington would not be denied access to the courts simply because they cannot afford a court filing fee. Under the proposed law, one’s lawsuit would be considered filed with the court on the same day as their fee-waiver application. This would prevent the statute of limitations from expiring while the judge considers the application. This fix would better ensure that all Alabamians have access to the courts, regardless of their wealth.

We also advocated for HB 379, which would have created a waiver process for the fee caps on how much appointed lawyers can be paid by the state for their representation of indigent criminal defendants.

Under current law, the fee caps are imposed regardless of the complexity of the case or how much time and effort the attorney puts into their client’s defense.

Fair justice requires that all people—regardless of how much money they have—are effectively represented in court. The existing fee caps discourage some of the most competent and effective lawyers in the state from taking on appointed work, and create a disincentive for appointed attorneys to devote the necessary time and resources to their client’s case.

We advocated for HB 379 because it would have created a process in which appointed attorneys could be paid up to double the cap in situations that require the devotion of extra time and resources into representing their client. Creating this type of waiver system will enable attorneys to provide their clients with the vigorous defense they deserve without forcing those attorneys to work for free, and could motivate attorneys who have avoided appointed work for financial reasons to represent individuals who cannot afford counsel. As a result, indigent defendants–who face the prospect of having the government take away their liberty–would enter the courtroom on a more even playing field.

In the coming months, Alabama Appleseed will publish reports that will educate the public and legislators about the importance of ensuring that all Alabamians, regardless of income, enjoy equal access to justice.

We will publish a report on the importance of civil legal aid services for individuals who cannot afford an attorney, provide attorneys with manuals to assist them in taking on such cases, and engage in court-watching and documentation research to evaluate the quality of representation afforded to indigent defendants. And when next session rolls around, we will urge lawmakers to ensure access to justice for all, making our state a fairer, safer, and more equitable place.

by Dana Sweeney, Organizer

There are more payday lenders and title loan stores in Alabama than hospitals, high schools, movie theaters, and county courthouses combined. Payday lending by itself is a massive industry that harms hundreds of thousands of Alabama borrowers and their families each year.  

Each year, the payday lending industry leeches more than $100 million from the pockets of low- and middle-income Alabama borrowers. Lenders make their biggest profits by snaring borrowers in devastating debt traps. While payday lenders advertise quick and easy access to cash, the fine print on their loan products include APR interest rates up to 456%. With astronomical rates like that, small-dollar, short-term loans frequently become expensive, multi-year burdens for Alabamians. To make matters worse, most of the money that payday lenders make by trapping Alabamians in rapidly ballooning debt—an estimated $1 billion each decade—flows out of our communities and into the pockets of companies headquartered out-of-state. When these vampiric lenders sap our neighbors’ household budgets and drain money from our local economies, we all lose.  

This year, Alabama Appleseed joined with other predatory lending reform advocates to advance the 30 Days to Pay bill (SB 138, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr, R-3). Under current law, payday loans can be issued with full repayment due in as few as 10 days. The 30 Days to Pay bill would have required payday lenders to issue loans on a 30 day repayment schedule, as is standard for virtually all other household bills. It would have significantly reduced the risk of borrowers falling into long-term debt traps by granting them more time and flexibility to repay loans, and it would have effectively cut the APR interest rate experienced by most borrowers in half (which, while remaining a deeply troubling triple-digit interest rate, would nevertheless be a substantial improvement over the current 456%).

A broad coalition of organizations joined Alabama Appleseed in advocating for the passage of SB 138, including business partners like the Birmingham Business Alliance, the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, and the Alabama Credit Union Association, and faith partners like the State Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, and Greater Birmingham Ministries.

Unfortunately, despite broad popular support for payday reform, the legislature failed to pass SB 138. After inching through the Senate Banking & Insurance committee over the course of several months, SB 138 ended up passing the Senate on March 8, 2018, with a 20-4 vote. It then moved to the House, where Speaker Mac McCutcheon assigned it to the Financial Services committee. Even though many committee members expressed a desire to vote on the bill, Chairman Rep. Ken Johnson (R-7) refused to bring the bill up for a vote. The 30 Days to Pay bill died right where many other payday reform bills have died before it: in the House Financial Services committee.

The end of the 2018 legislative session marked yet another year in which our state lawmakers failed to protect Alabama borrowers while payday lenders lined their own pockets with cash. While most legislators have said that they support predatory lending reform, friends of the payday industry again blocked a limited reform.

The legislature’s failure to pass SB 138 was deeply disappointing, but Alabama Appleseed will continue to fight for predatory lending reform alongside impacted borrowers. Predatory lending reform remains one of the most bipartisan, popular issues in the state, and we will continue to press our officials to do what their constituents have been asking them to do for many years. We will continue to advocate for reforms like 30 Days to Pay, and we remain committed to seeing Alabama move to the gold standard of a 36% APR maximum for all small loans that is seen in many other states.