By Carla Crowder,  Alabama Appleseed Executive Director

Antonio was incarcerated at St. Clair prison a few years ago when another prisoner bit off part of his ear. They were housed in a dorm that supposedly offered rehabilitative services. For Antonio, permanent disfigurement was the outcome.  

Incarcerated people in Alabama are routinely subjected to violence and inhumane conditions in Alabama prisons, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

He did not seek revenge against the man who bit his ear. He redoubled his efforts to engage in what meager positive programming was available at ADOC. He earned his parole.  Supported by a devoted mother and sister, he is safely living back in the community.

Antonio was my client during the time I worked on prison conditions litigation at the Equal Justice Initiative before joining Appleseed. Only through the bravery of incarcerated people like him who share the truth of what’s happening inside with the outside world — often at great risk to their safety — can desperately needed change occur. 

His situation came to mind this week as I read through the U.S. Department of Justice’s 56-page report about its investigation into the Alabama Department of Corrections.  It documents horrific violence and a culture of corruption, mismanagement and indifference.  DOJ found an “enormous breadth of Eighth Amendment violations.” In plain terms, the State of Alabama is breaking the law, knows it’s breaking the law, and has been doing so for a long time.  

St. Clair Correctional Facility, where the Alabama Department of Corrections promised a federal court it would improve security, but did not make good on that promise.

Individuals who break the law hear a lot about reform, about accepting responsibility for their actions. They are told they must change their ways and not recidivate.  If they commit crimes over and over, the penalties increase under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Law.

Antonio understood that.

But the government that incarcerated him in conditions that resulted in permanent harm to his body has not stopped breaking the law, despite decades of harm imposed on the Alabamians in their custody.  The United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and all three U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Alabama, working under a Justice Department led by former Alabama Attorney General and Senator Jeff Sessions for much of their investigation, concluded scathingly:  “ADOC has long been aware that conditions within its prisons present an objectively substantial risk to prisoners. Yet little has changed.”

The timeline stretches back to the Wallace era.  As early as 1975, a federal court stopped ADOC from accepting any new prisoners into four of its prisons until the population of each was reduced.  Again in 2002, a court order declared dangerous crowding and understaffing at Tutwiler Prison for Women to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In 2011, another federal court found ADOC facilities understaffed and overcrowded. In 2014, DOJ documented rampant sexual abuse by staff of women at Tutwiler. Later in 2014, EJI urged the state to investigate and address homicides at St. Clair prison and filed a lawsuit alleging unconstitutional violence and abuse there.

And now, as documented by a two-and-a-half year federal investigation, so many people die in state prison custody that the ADOC lost count and classified some homicides as natural deaths.  

“Alabama does not have a reliable system for tracking the deaths that occur within its custody,” the DOJ found.  Consider the grim irony of that fact. Our state punishes people who commit acts of violence — and many with convictions for drug use or property crime — through a prison system unable and unwilling to keep track of who dies there and how.

To people numbed to bad news by the steady flow of reports of murders, suicides, and strikes, and violence in our state prisons, this could seem like just another report about the persistent crisis plaguing the Department of Corrections. But it is not. The DOJ laid out five pages of corrective actions expected from the state with strict timelines for implementation.  The report is actually a notice to the state, as required by CRIPA (the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act), that the federal investigation found numerous constitutional violations and the ADOC has 49 days to begin addressing the problems or be sued by the federal government.

Alabama’s elected leaders have attempted to address this crisis before.  Multiple task forces have tweaked sentencing laws and parole policies, and “the violence has only increased,” the DOJ found.  Meanwhile, Alabama has maintained the country’s fifth-highest incarceration rate for decades. That also means we have the fifth highest incarceration rate in the world, if every U.S. state were a country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Alabama cannot build its way out of this problem, nor can it buy its way out. Our elected leaders must finally acknowledge that Alabama’s people are not worse and more deserving of incarceration than nearly every other population on the planet.  They must stop relying on the politics of fear, on pressure from the victims’ lobby, and on our entrenched system of policing for profit that places the acquisition of funding for law enforcement above evidence-based public safety.

Antonio, even with his damaged body, turned his life around and changed his ways.  Now it’s time for the government that endangered him for a decade to do the same.

 

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Researcher

WOODLAND, Ala. (March 30, 2019) Teresa Almond is terrified. Though more than 13 months have passed since the day the Randolph County Drug Task Force upended her life with a flashbang grenade and a raid on her home, the 49-year-old grandmother still spends at least part of most days sitting beneath the shelter of a relative’s carport, clutching a firearm and waiting fearfully for the deputies to come back.

Across the street is the house where she and her husband Greg Almond raised their children, where they celebrated holidays and birthdays and weekends with grandchildren, from 1991 until January 31, 2018. That day, after a sheriff’s deputy said he smelled marijuana at the house, the drug task force broke down the Almonds’ door, detonated a flashbang grenade, forced the couple to the floor at gunpoint, and tore through the house.

The task force found about $50 worth of marijuana and a single pill of Lunesta, a prescription sleep aid, that was outside of the bottle bearing Greg’s name and showing it was his prescription.

On this pretext, task force members handcuffed the Almonds and booked them into the Randolph County jail. They were charged with possession of marijuana in the second degree, a misdemeanor, and with felony possession of a controlled substance because the Lunesta pill was not in its original packaging.

Greg’s family watched from their home across the street as officers remained at the house till past dark that night, carting out tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of belongings: Greg’s sizable gun collection, a chainsaw, a weed eater, antique guitars, a coin collection, Teresa’s wedding rings, and about $8,000 in cash the Almonds kept in safes in the back of the house. The doors were left unsecured; the Almonds’ dog escaped. Greg and Teresa, neither of whom had ever been arrested before, spent the night in jail.

Drug task forces undertake raids like this one with some frequency in Alabama. They are joint operations of county, municipal, state, and sometimes federal law enforcement agencies. They often work off tips from confidential informants and seek to surprise drug manufacturers and shut down illegal activity. Sometimes, they take property and assets as evidence.

They are also permitted to seize items under a process called civil asset forfeiture, which enables the state to take and keep cash, vehicles, valuables, and even real property if they are able to prove to the “reasonable satisfaction” of a judge that it is the fruit of, or was used to facilitate, illegal activity.

Civil asset forfeiture can be enormously profitable for the state. Historically, Alabama has not tracked or made public income from forfeitures, though this will change if prosecutors follow through on a recent promise to create a public database. But in 2018, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center examined about 70 percent of civil asset forfeiture cases filed in 2015, in a first-of-its-kind effort to quantify the results of this practice. The resulting report showed that Alabama raked in nearly $2.2 million in 827 disposed cases in 2015. That same year, courts awarded law enforcement agencies 406 weapons, 119 vehicles, 95 electronic items and 274 miscellaneous items, including gambling devices, digital scales, power tools, houses, and mobile homes.

Greg Almond looks over the remains of his home after the raid.

In 18 percent of 2015 cases where criminal charges were filed, the charge was simple possession of marijuana and/or paraphernalia, crimes that by definition do not enrich the people who commit them. Possession of marijuana in the second degree was the only charge against the Almonds that stuck after a grand jury rejected the notion that possession of Lunesta for which Greg had a valid prescription constituted a felony.

The Almonds say their adult son, who was living with them at the time, told law enforcement that the marijuana was his and that his parents did not know it was in the house. But the prosecutor declined to drop the charges. The Almonds expect to go to trial in Randolph County Circuit Court soon.

In the meantime, they have filed a federal lawsuit alleging civil rights violations by the county, the county commission, and several sheriff’s deputies. Among other things, the suit alleges that the sheriff did not even follow proper procedure for undertaking a civil asset forfeiture. Under current law, the state must file a civil suit and make a showing that there is a meaningful connection between the assets seized and criminal activity, and a judge must agree that that is so. But according to the Almonds’ lawsuit, Randolph County law enforcement never filed such a suit. They simply kept the Almonds’ things, depositing the cash they’d taken into the general fund of the Randolph County Commission. The suit also alleges the task force failed to correctly log many of the items they took, including about half the cash, half the guns, and other items and valuables. The task force simply took them. And now the Almonds have nothing.

Todd Brown, an attorney representing the county, the county commission, and all but two of the individuals named as defendants, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

From the Almonds’ perspective, the task force’s timing could not have been worse. At the time, the Almonds’ primary source of income was Almond Memorial Monument Company, a family-owned tombstone-engraving business that Greg inherited from his father and operated with their son. To save for retirement, the Almonds also operated chicken houses, feeding and sheltering birds until they were ready for slaughter and processing. Teresa sometimes cleaned houses to earn extra money as well.

In 2017, the poultry producer with whom the Almonds were contracting told them they could not house any more birds until they made some changes to their chicken houses. Money was tight that year, as Greg sought to earn extra from his monument business to re-invest in the chicken houses. The Almonds lived on land that had been in Greg’s family since 1901, but had mortgaged a portion of their property, including their house, to start up the chicken farm. They were due to sign paperwork restructuring their loans on Feb. 1, 2018, at 10 A.M.

They missed that deadline because they were in jail. The night the Almonds were locked up, Greg’s sister was 30 miles away staying with their mother, who had been hospitalized. She bonded Greg and Teresa out the next day, and they rushed to the bank. They got there too late, and once the deadline passed, the opportunity to restructure fell through. They lost their house, and much of Greg’s family land.

The raid and the loss of the $8,000 had an outsize effect on the Almonds’ financial circumstances.  It interrupted the careful flow of resources that kept their small business afloat and undermined their options for renewed consideration for loan restructuring after they missed the bank deadline because they were in jail.

The raid had other repercussions. The Almonds’ arrest was big news in their rural community, where lawns are punctuated by “Back the Blue” signs indicating residents’ support for law enforcement. When the Almonds went to jail, rumors started that they operated a meth lab, that they were drug dealers or manufacturers or worse. Greg’s mugshot appeared on the sheriff’s Facebook page. People whispered, and business dwindled. Greg’s reputation as a businessman, carefully cultivated over decades and attested to in older posts on the Almond Monument Memorials Facebook page, evaporated.

Greg, who between the monument business and chicken houses used to work 16-hour days, found work as a handyman. His boss treats him well, but he is lucky if he brings home $95 a day. “If somebody came up to me right now and said, ‘Here, here’s $15,000, so you can start your business back up,’ I couldn’t because my shop is full of our furniture. That’s the only place I had to put it,” he said. “I’m in worse shape than when I was 17 years old because at that point, I didn’t have bad credit, I just didn’t really have no credit. Now with this, I have poor credit, and I might have a little more than I did when I was 17, but not much. And now at 50, I have bad knees, I can’t get out there and get it like I used to.”

Greg stayed in their house until the bank forced him out. Teresa came back once, saw the piles of toys and Christmas decorations and mason jars of home-canned vegetables the task force had strewn around her home, and never returned. Since May 2018, the closest thing the Almonds have had to a home is a storage shed the size of a vacation camper-trailer that they previously used to store catfish feed and fishing rods. 

Christmas gifts and toys left behind after the task force raid

Greg insulated the shed, but the Almonds have no running water or indoor plumbing. They cook over an open fire outside their front door and keep food cool in a portable cooler. A small solar panel provides enough electricity to power their television and a floor lamp at night, but they do not have enough power to run an air conditioner. For Christmas, Greg’s boss gave them a wood-burning stove to supplement the propane heater they had been using. Some mornings, Greg wakes up to indoor temperatures in the low 50s.

Teresa, who is restless and fearful and speaks so quietly it’s hard to hear her at times, rarely stays in the shed. “I’m not right. I have not been right since the day it happened,” she said.

“That was my home. I raised all my babies in there. And my grandbabies. If my grandbabies would have been there that day, they would have hurt my grandbabies,” she continued. “I have nowhere to bring my babies to spend time with them. Cause this is not a atmosphere that I want my grandbabies in, and them remembering that we lived in a shack because of cops.”

Greg Almond, a Randolph County man who owned an engraving business, chicken houses, and several acres of land, before law enforcement raided his home and seized tens of thousands of dollars in property, discusses his family’s plight.

Across Alabama, residents lose their jobs, housing, drivers’ licenses, and spend long stretches in jail because they cannot afford to pay court fines and fees. This week, a unanimous United States Supreme Court reminded states that this is not supposed to happen anywhere in America.

The case, Timbs v. Indiana, concerns the questionable practice of civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement is permitted to seize property of people merely suspected of criminal activity. But the Court devotes the bulk of its opinion to providing states a refresher on the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, reaching back to the Magna Carta and recalling Southern States’ Black Codes. Fines get special attention because they have been wrongly used to raise revenue, punish political enemies, and subjugate African Americans, in a way that conflicts with “the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

Alabama Appleseed has documented how thousands of Alabamians are trapped in cycles of debt, incarceration, and grinding poverty because they cannot afford to pay fines, fees, and court costs assessed against them or their families. A survey conducted last year found that court debt drove over 80% of survey takers to give up basic necessities, that over 50% had been jailed for being unable to pay what they owed, and that about 40% had committed crimes like stealing or selling drugs to pay court debt for non-felony offenses. The majority believed they’d never be able to pay everything they owed.

Terrence Truitt spent eight days in jail because he couldn’t afford to pay fines from fishing without permission, which he did to feed himself and his children. Terry Knowles lived in a tiny motel room with his extended family so he could be close enough to work to walk because he could not afford the fee to reinstate his license.

Callie Johnson missed payments on basic necessities because she was helping her children pay their court debt. Angela Dabney, a single mother, lost her driver’s license because she couldn’t afford to pay traffic tickets – and because she lost her license, she lost her job.

If there was ever any doubt, this week’s unanimous opinion makes clear that the kind of suffering imposed on these Alabama families runs afoul of the Constitution and must stop. At a minimum, fines should “be proportioned to the wrong” and “not be so large as to deprive an offender (of his) livelihood,” the opinion states.

Also at issue in the Timbs case was civil forfeiture. Alabama law enforcement officials have claimed that state laws protect citizens from the kinds of abuses documented in Timbs.

Not necessarily. As Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center reported last year, Alabama’s abusive civil asset forfeiture scheme, which allows the state to take money and property from people without even accusing them of a crime, enriches law enforcement agencies and disproportionately harms people of color. Civil asset forfeiture is an unjust process that deprives people of property without due process, and it should be abolished.

In its ruling, the high court stated that the constitutional provision which forbids excessive fines applies to states in civil as well as criminal cases when the resulting forfeitures are at least partially punitive. In essence, it found that Indiana’s seizure of a man’s Range Rover was unconstitutional because $42,000 was a radically disproportionate fine for the sale of $400 worth of heroin.

Here in Alabama, police more often seize rent money, not Range Rovers. Our study found that the amount of cash seized in civil forfeiture cases involved $1,372 or less in half of all cases examined. The legal fees to get it back are usually more, so most property owners never attempt to get their property back — even where they were not convicted of wrongdoing in connection with the seized property. That should give us all pause.

The fines levied against Terrence Truitt, Angela Dabney, Terry Knowles, Callie Johnson, and the other individuals who took Appleseed’s survey were on average far lower than $42,000, but their consequences were no less devastating. Because they had no way of paying what the state demanded of them, people who took this survey gave up food, shelter, and medicine. They went to jail.

An orderly society requires that violations carry consequences, and it is not Appleseed’s contention that individuals who break the law be permitted to “get away with it” simply because they are poor. But excessive fines are in the eye of the beholder, and Appleseed’s research makes clear that fines that would be manageable for some are devastating for others.

No one should lose their driver’s license, and with it, their ability to work, because they cannot afford to pay a ticket, fees, and interest for a busted headlight. No one should be jailed, or homeless, or give up medicine, or feel forced to accept charity or commit a felony, because they were too poor to pay their court debt. Alabama can fix this, by ending the practice of revoking licenses for unpaid traffic debt, and by evaluating individuals’ financial circumstances and scaling fines to their ability to pay.

Excessive fines are alive and well in Alabama, and they are destroying lives. As nine Supreme Court justices agreed this week — It’s time for a change.

Read it on AL.com

by Dana Sweeney, Organizer

If you start asking around for people’s opinions of payday lending in Alabama, the responses will almost all follow along the same lines: that payday lenders are legalized loan sharks, that 456% APR interest rates are usury, that these shameless lenders prey upon and abuse the poorest Alabamians to make a buck. While conducting such a casual poll would quickly reveal the low opinion most Alabamians have of the payday industry, Alabamians who believe in responsible lending were recently bolstered by a new scientific poll published on the subject. It turns out that Alabamians really do not like payday lending, and we like it less every year.

As part of their annual, statewide public opinion survey, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) found that 84.1% of Alabamians believe payday loans should be restricted or banned in our state — a dramatic increase of 24.1% from last year’s results, which were already high. PARCA also found that fewer and fewer Alabamians accept the payday lending status quo. This year, fewer than 1 in 10 Alabamians thought payday loans are acceptable as they are currently issued.  

Payday lending has been unpopular in Alabama for years, but the last year has seen a sea change in public opinion on the issue. Alabamians favoring payday reform have become an overwhelming, bipartisan majority. In fact, at this point, an outright majority of Alabamians (52.6%) would like to simply see the industry banned entirely. About 80% of Alabamians believe that borrowers should be protected from high interest rates and debt traps even if it means reducing the profitability of payday lending businesses.

When considering what reforms would be sensible, Alabama voters are in near lockstep: Almost three-quarters of Alabamians believe that we should have a 36% APR rate cap, and about the same number think that payday lenders should be required to issue loans on a 30-day repayment schedule. The latter of these reforms, which enjoys the highest level of support among all options, passed the Senate last year as the 30 Days to Pay bill. It would better position borrowers to gather their finances and repay the loan on time, cut the APR interest rate in half for many borrowers, reduce the number of Alabamians who fall into the debt trap, and place payday loan bills on the same monthly payment schedule as virtually all other household bills. Advocates across the state including Alabama Appleseed hope to see the legislature revisit this popular reform in the upcoming session.

Payday lending reform is stratospherically popular among Alabama voters, and it is desperately needed for Alabama borrowers. It is past time for our legislators to listen to their constituents and do the right thing by passing payday lending reform. We will see them at the statehouse and in their districts to ensure that legislators place their constituents over this predatory industry.

For more information about PARCA’s findings, feel free to check out the report for yourself.

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.