Challenging Alabama’s Racial Wealth Divide

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by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

The staggering racial disparities in Alabama’s criminal justice system mean people of color are more likely to incur criminal justice debt and face counterproductive hurdles to reentry. People of color are also far more likely to encounter predatory lenders, whose loan products can legally reach 456% APR. Together, these systems help drive Alabama’s racial wealth divide.

With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Alabama Appleseed has launched a collaborative project with Greater Birmingham Ministries, Legal Services Alabama, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities (TASC) to:

  • Document how court-imposed debt and collateral consequences push individuals to seek high interest loans from payday and title loan lenders.
  • Reduce the burden of these debts by educating Alabamians about alternative loan products that would minimize debt burdens.
  • Develop and execute a long-range plan to remedy these three drivers of Alabama’s racial wealth divide.

How will we do this?

Focusing on people of color in Birmingham, Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Lowndes County, Bessemer, and Tarrant, we will:

  • Survey Alabamians impacted by court-imposed debt and/or collateral consequences to understand their role in pushing people to predatory lenders.
  • Seek insight from individuals who know this system, including social workers, law enforcement, indigent defense and civil legal aid attorneys, bank and credit union workers, predatory lenders, academics, social service providers, state and local government workers, and faith and community leaders.
  • Partner with credit unions and other non-predatory loan providers to host public educational forums about reasonable alternative loan products.
  • Develop a broad, ideologically diverse coalition of advocates to address these drivers of Alabama’s racial wealth divide.

Here’s what we know so far:

Court fees are no longer just about funding the operations of the judiciary – they have become funding stream for basic government services. Of the over $165 million in fees collected by Alabama’s courts in 2011, more than 40 percent went to supplement government budgets outside of the judiciary, including county general funds, employee pay raises, and museums. And, fees collected by Alabama’s criminal courts made up over 66% of the total collected. These fees further ensnare low-income people of color in a hard-to-escape cycles of debt.

Alabama continues to erect counterproductive barriers in front of former offenders returning to their communities, such as arbitrary limitations on employment and housing – two key factors to reducing recidivism. According to The Council of State Governments, Alabama maintains 842 collateral consequences to a criminal conviction.

In addition to those statutorily created hurdles, because of the criminal history checkbox on many employers’ initial employment applications, individuals with criminal records often have their job application tossed out before they ever have an opportunity to present their qualifications or rehabilitation. 

Alabama has more predatory lenders than McDonalds restaurants. In 2015, 246,824 unique Alabama borrowers took out more than two million payday loans. The average predatory loan rate is 300% APR and can legally reach 456% APR. Despite being sold to lawmakers as a way for individuals to obtain emergency credit, the average borrower took out eight loans in 2015. In reality, these predatory loan products are used to pay for basic needs and, as a 2014 survey conducted by TASC found, to cover court costs, fines, and fees.  

By reducing criminal fees, removing unnecessary hurdles to reentry, and reining in predatory lenders, this project will help remove three drivers of household debt in Alabama’s communities of color.

It’s Time for Civil Asset Forfeiture to Go

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by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

Under both Alabama and federal law, the government can take and keep your cash, your car, or your house – even if you are never charged with a crime. This program, known as civil asset forfeiture, turns the fundamental American principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head and has no place in Alabama.

Thanks to legislation introduced by Senator Orr (SB 213) and Representative Mooney (HB 287), this abusive practice may soon end here in Alabama.

Originally sold to the public as a tool for taking the ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins, civil asset forfeiture has strayed far from its alleged purpose. In practice, drug kingpins are rarely the target: as our report with the Southern Poverty Law Center found, in half of the cases the amount of cash forfeited was $1,372 or less. The average amount of $1,372 is often less than the typical cost of hiring an attorney to challenge the seizure in court.

That’s not the most troubling finding. In 25% of the civil forfeiture cases we reviewed, there was not a corresponding criminal charge. Think about that – one in every four civil asset forfeiture cases involved the government taking and keeping a person’s property who was never even charged with a crime. In fact, in  2015 alone, local and state government entities kept at least $670,000 from property owners who were never changed with a crime.

It took some digging to learn all of this. Under current law, the government is not required to report what they have taken to a centralized database, so in order to gather data for our report, we had to write a computer program, purchase thousands of dollars worth of court records, and spend hundreds of hours reviewing them one by one. What they did with that money remains a mystery, because of the 138 agencies that were sent open records requests, only one responded with information about expenditures from its forfeiture account. Most agencies didn’t respond at all.

How did we get into this mess? It’s all about incentives.

Under Alabama law, law enforcement keeps up to 100% of the proceeds from forfeited property.

Under the federal program, Alabama law enforcement can keep up to 80% of the proceeds. Between 2000 and 2013, Alabama law enforcement agencies kept over $75 million in property, and, as is the case with the Alabama programs, none of that required a warrant or indictment, much less a criminal conviction.

Between state and federal programs, Alabama law enforcement raked in over $5 million in 2015 alone.  

Law enforcement should not be put in a position where they appear to value funding their budget over the protection of individual rights.

Thanks to Senator Orr and Representative Mooney, we have a very simple solution. Their legislation would:

  • Require that the forfeiture process occur within the criminal case. This legislation would ensure the government proves that the individual whose property was taken was actually convicted of a crime, and that the property seized was the product of, or that it facilitated, that crime. This places the burden back where it belongs – on the state
  • Protect innocent property owners. This legislation would create a process in which property owners can promptly challenge a seizure and/or assert that they did not know or consent to the use of their property in an alleged crime.
  • Bring transparency to the forfeiture process. This legislation would require annual, centralized reporting of all seizures and forfeitures and what law enforcement agencies spend forfeiture proceeds on.
  • Restricts the ability to abuse the federal forfeiture programs. This legislation would prohibit Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from federal forfeiture actions.

This legislation is a win-win. Criminal forfeiture protects innocent Alabama property owners and leaves in place the tools law enforcement needs to hold those who commit crimes accountable.

Ban the Box Clears First Legislative Hurdle

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by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

Earlier today the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee voted to enhance public safety, strengthen our economy, and give people a second chance to make an honest living.

SB 198 (Sen. Singleton), and its House counterpart, HB 257 (Rep. Givan), would prohibit a state or local government employer from asking an applicant about their criminal history until a conditional offer of employment is made. A safeguard in the bill would enable the government employer to withdraw the job offer if the applicant’s criminal conviction is directly related to the job. Further, the bill establishes clear criteria for state agencies to consider during the screening process, which would better protect the agencies from claims of discrimination under Title VII.

Why should Alabama government employers ban the box? Because it improves the public sector’s ability to recruit the best and brightest, strengthens Alabama’s economy, helps make our communities safer, better ensures a second chance for Alabamians who have already paid their debt to society, reduces the criminal justice system’s disproportionate impact on people of color, protects Alabama from having to hire an individual whose criminal conviction is directly related to the job, and helps protect state employers from claims of discrimination.

Many of America’s largest companies, including Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Starbucks, Koch Industries, and Facebook, recognize that banning the box is good for business. As Koch Industries General Counsel Mark Holden wrote last year, “For employers seeking the best talent, it makes sense for a company to consider all factors, including any prior criminal record, in the context of an applicant’s other life experiences. We are in a global competition for the best talent period; not the best talent with or without a record.” Our state and local government employers should view their hiring practices in the same light.

As the National Employment Law Project notes, when an individual with a criminal record has a job, they will contribute more to the tax base, purchase more goods, and is less likely to commit a new crime, thus reducing the amount of money that state and local governments must spend on their criminal justice systems. It is estimated that our nation’s economy loses between $78 and $87 billion each year because of lost output caused by criminal record-related barriers. To strengthen our economy, Alabama lawmakers should support this bill.

In addition to being a sensible business practice, banning the box will also make our communities safer. Alabama has approximately 21,000 people in its prisons, and another 11,000 in its jails. The vast majority of those individuals will be released and return to their communities. To reduce the recidivism rate, the Department of Justice has identified three key elements to successful re-entry into our communities. One of these key elements is helping these individuals find and keep a job. This legislation is a first step toward realizing a key element to reducing recidivism and making our communities safer.

It will also make our communities more fair. Under current law, an otherwise fully qualified applicant can be denied employment long after that applicant has completed their sentence. This practice places counterproductive hurdles in front of individuals seeking to rebuild their lives and provide for their families. Denying a person’s application without considering their qualifications or rehabilitation prevents people who have completed their sentences from getting a fair chance at a fresh start.

Because African Americans are disproportionately caught up in our criminal justice system, they are disproportionately affected when seeking employment. For example, 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. Those individuals will be disproportionately impacted when filling out a job application that includes a criminal history box. This bill offers an opportunity to begin to address the long-term consequences of a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects African Americans.

To protect government employers (and taxpayers), under this legislation a government employer would be permitted to withdraw the offer of employment after learning of the prospective employee’s criminal conviction background if the prospective employee has a conviction that “is directly related to the position of employment sought.” For example, this provision protects a state employer from being forced to hire a convicted embezzler to keep its books.

Finally, by balancing public safety concerns with a sensible approach to hiring, this legislation may help to insulate government employers from claims of discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a guidance document for entities covered by Title VII, including state and local governments, to help eliminate unlawful discrimination in the employment hiring process. As outlined in the guidance document, an employer must show that the selection criteria use or selection procedures are “job related and consistent with business necessity.” Specifically related to an applicant’s criminal record, the guidance says that the individualized screening process should consider “at least the nature of the crime, the time elapsed, and the nature of the job” or otherwise comply with the EEOC Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. This legislation establishes clear criteria for government employers to consider during the screening process when evaluating a person’s prior criminal record, which will better protect government employers from claims of discrimination under Title VII.

SB 198 now heads to the Senate floor.

This legislation is a win-win. It makes us safer, strengthens our economy, better ensures that Alabamians are judged on their merit, not their mistakes, and protects government employers.

Alabama Appleseed Urges Governor Ivey to Rethink Alabama’s Drug Policy

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, regarding Governor Ivey’s decision to award $1.3 million to establish the Alabama Drug Enforcement Task Force:

“After more than 45 years of the War on Drugs, one thing is clear – we cannot prosecute our way out of drug use. Approximately one in every seven people in Alabama’s already overcrowded prisons are there because of a drug offense, yet drugs remain cheap and widely available. Doubling down on this failed strategy is an expensive and ineffective approach.

Alabamians would be much better served by redirecting money to treatment programs and other public health based responses that have been shown to reduce drug use and save lives. We urge Governor Ivey to reconsider her decision.”

Alabama Legislature Sends Bill to Make Alabama’s Death Penalty Process Even Less Fair and Accurate to the Governor

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, regarding SB 187.

Eight times since 1976 Alabama has sent a person to death row and gotten it wrong. Yet, instead of focusing on ways to keep Alabama from making another potentially deadly mistake, the Alabama legislature voted to make Alabama’s death penalty process even less reliable.”

“Opposition to this legislation should have been universal. In the United States, the importance of ensuring a fair and accurate death penalty process should be non-negotiable. The Alabama legislature disagreed.”

“We urge Governor Ivey to veto this bill. This is not about where you stand on the death penalty, it’s about where you stand on the need to ensure a fair and accurate death penalty process.”

SB 187 will now go to Governor Kay Ivey. For additional information regarding SB 187, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

House Votes to Make Alabama’s Death Penalty Process Even Less Fair and Accurate

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed regarding SB 187, which the Alabama House of Representatives passed today:

Eight times since 1976 Alabama has sent a person to death row and gotten it wrong. Yet, instead of focusing on ways to keep Alabama from making another potentially deadly mistake, the Alabama House voted today to make Alabama’s death penalty process even less reliable.”

“Opposition to this legislation should be universal. In the United States, the importance of ensuring a fair and accurate death penalty process should be non-negotiable. Today, the Alabama House disagreed.”

For additional information regarding SB 187, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

House Committee Votes to Make Alabama’s Death Penalty Process Less Reliable, Says Alabama Appleseed

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed regarding SB 187, which the Alabama House of Representatives Judiciary Committee favorably reported today:

“Eight times in the modern death penalty era Alabama has sent a person to death row and gotten it wrong. Yet, instead of focusing on ways to keep Alabama from making another potentially deadly mistake, the House Judiciary Committee voted today to make Alabama’s death penalty process even less reliable. Regardless of where each of us stand on the death penalty, we should all agree that Alabama must do everything in its power to not execute an innocent person. SB 187 goes in the opposite direction – it would increase the likelihood that Alabama could make a fatal mistake.”

For additional information regarding SB 187, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

Alabama Appleseed Praises Governor’s Action to End Judicial Override

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed regarding SB 16, which was signed by Governor Kay Ivey today:

We should all agree that if we have a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. SB 16 will help minimize unreliable and arbitrary death sentences and move Alabama one step closer to ending its outlier status. We commend Senator Brewbaker, Senator Sanders, and Representative England for their leadership in this effort. And, we thank Governor Ivey for her quick action to finally put an end to judicial override in Alabama. But, as the American Bar Association pointed out over ten years ago, much work remains before Alabama can consider its death penalty process to be fair and accurate.

​SB 16 became effective immediately. For additional information regarding SB 16, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

Alabama Appleseed Praises House Committee Vote to End Judicial Override

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed regarding SB 16, which the Alabama House of Representatives Judiciary Committee favorably reported today:

We should all agree that if we have a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. SB 16 would help minimize unreliable and arbitrary death sentences and move Alabama one step closer to ending its outlier status. We commend Senator Brewbaker and Representative England for their leadership in this effort. But, as the American Bar Association pointed out over ten years ago, much work remains before Alabama can consider its death penalty process to be fair and accurate.

SB 16 will now move to the House floor for consideration. For additional information regarding SB 16, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.