In two memos sent yesterday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced that sheriffs may no longer personally profit from a very small portion of jail food funds: those state funds allocated for services in preparing and serving food to people in their jails. Contrary to media reports, these memos do not yet fully fix the problem of sheriffs personally pocketing these public funds.

In a statement, Governor Ivey said: “Public funds should be used for public purposes – it’s that simple.” While we applaud the Governor for taking a step towards accountability, her directive will have little practical impact on the problem it seeks to address. The reason is technical, but important. The Governor’s memos only prohibit sheriffs from personally profiting from what is referred to in § Ala. Code 14-6-43 as “food service allowance funds”. The memos do nothing to stop sheriffs from pocketing the far larger amounts of state monies that are provided, per §Ala. Code 14-6-42, for the cost of food itself.

The food service allowance funds make up a small fraction of the total amount that a sheriff receives. In 2017, across the state, sheriffs received $204,605.10 in food service allowance funds, and the far larger sum of $4,991,500.50 for food costs. This means that the food service allowance, which the Governor’s memo addresses, constituted less than 4% of the total amount of state jail food money given to sheriffs last year. In some counties, the difference was starker: in Baldwin County, Sheriff Huey Mack received a food service allowance of $4,106.25, and $293,980.75 to purchase food.

“We agree with Governor Ivey that the law does not permit the conversion of public funds – funds which are designated by statute for the feeding of prisoners – into personal income for sheriffs,” said Aaron Littman, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Unfortunately, unless this directive is revised, sheriffs will continue to pocket large amounts of taxpayer money from jail food accounts.”

“For decades some Alabama sheriffs have abused the public trust by placing personal profit over meeting the basic human needs of people in their care,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “We thank Governor Ivey for taking the first step to rein in this abuse and urge Alabama legislators to heed her call to end this for good.”

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.

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.

By Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel

Low-income tenants throughout Alabama will enjoy greater access to justice due to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeal’s ruling last week in Morrow v. Pake.

In a decision that will affect thousands of tenants, the court reversed the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court, and ruled that tenants who are evicted have a right under state law to later file a lawsuit for a landlord’s illegal actions while they were a resident of the property.

The tenant in the case, Bridgette Morrow, was evicted after the landlord failed to repair the unsafe living conditions she repeatedly reported about the house she rented. The law firm Winston & Straw, LLP and the Civil Legal Clinic at the University of Alabama School of Law recognized the injustice faced by Ms. Morrow endured and represented her for free to ensure she received quality legal representation. They also took on this case to protect the rights of individuals like Ms. Morrow throughout Alabama.

Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama (LSA) filed an amici curiae brief in support of Ms. Morrow and individuals like her in our state. We felt compelled to speak up for the rights of tenants like Ms. Morrow, who too often face eviction proceedings without any legal representation. 

The main question in the case was whether a tenant who is facing eviction is legally required to raise any claims he or she has against the landlord during the eviction proceedings, during which they are likely distracted by the prospect of imminent homelessness, or if they can bring those claims at a later date.

Preserving the right to bring a claim at a later date is essential to ensuring tenants are able to receive justice in situations where a landlord subjected them to substandard living conditions and failed to provide basic services as prescribed in the terms of the lease.

The court unequivocally agreed with Ms. Morrow’s argument that under the Alabama Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) a tenant’s right to challenge their landlord’s illegal actions does not end with their eviction.  

The court underscored the point made in the appeal and in Alabama Appleseed and LSA’s brief that if the Alabama Legislature wanted to require such claims, they would have done so in the URLTA.

The court also agreed with our analysis that the purpose of an eviction proceeding is to focus on the issue of possession of the property, and not necessarily address the conditions and other wrongs the tenant encountered while living there.

As a result of upholding this right, tenants will have more time to find a lawyer and challenge the illegal acts of their landlord, instead of being forced to do so under the stressful and time-constrained conditions of an eviction proceedings.

While Alabama Appleseed is pleased with the court’s ruling, there is still much work to be done to create a level playing field our courtrooms. A vast majority of tenants enter the courtroom without legal representation, while the vast majority of landlords have ready access to quality counsel. As a result, the deck is already stacked against low-income tenants.

To create a more fair justice system, the State of Alabama must provide more and adequate resources for civil legal aid programs—including the Volunteers Lawyers Programs, Legal Services Alabama, and the other clinics and service providers—who provide low-income Alabamians, including many tenants, with vital access to legal representation. Only with such access to counsel will tenants and other low-income Alabamians be more likely to receive access to fair justice in the courts.

The 2018 Alabama Regular Session began on January 9 and concluded on March 29. Below is a summary of key human rights legislation considered during the 2018 session.

 

Fair Schools, Safe Communities Campaign Legislation

Our communities are safer and our schools fairer when laws and policies are grounded in evidence. It’s time for Alabama’s laws to reflect this common-sense approach.

End Civil Asset Forfeiture

Bill Number(s): SB 213 (Sen. Orr) and HB 287 (Rep. Mooney)

Bill Summary: SB 213 and HB 287 would have ended civil asset forfeiture (replacing it with the criminal forfeiture process in all instances), required transparency in the criminal asset forfeiture process, and prohibited Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from the federal civil asset forfeiture programs.

Why we Supported: Civil asset forfeiture:

  • Disproportionately harms Alabama’s most vulnerable;
  • Incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice;
  • Turns the presumption of innocence on its head by forcing property owners to defend their property’s “innocence.”

Bill Outcome: SB 213 passed the Senate, but the House failed to take action on the bill. HB 287 did not receive a committee hearing in the House.

Reclassify Marijuana Possession

Bill Number(s): SB 251 (Sen. Brewbaker) & HB 272 (Rep. Todd)

Bill Summary: SB 251 and HB 272 would have reclassified possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a fine-only offense.

Why we Supported: Alabama’s current marijuana laws:

  • Turn otherwise law-abiding people into felons for merely possessing small quantities of marijuana;
  • Waste taxpayer money and misdirect law enforcement resources;
  • Disproportionately harm African Americans;
  • Needlessly ensnare Alabamians in the criminal justice system.

Bill Outcome: SB 251 received a favorable report from the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the full Senate failed to take action. HB 272 failed in the House Judiciary Committee.

Ban the Box

Bill Number(s): SB 198 (Sen. Singleton) & HB 257 (Rep. Givan)

Bill Summary: SB 198 (Sen. Singleton) & HB 257 would have prohibited a state or local government employer from asking an applicant about their criminal history until a conditional offer of employment is made. Under this law, the government employer would be permitted to withdraw the job offer if the applicant’s criminal conviction was directly related to the job.

Why we Supported: Banning the box would:

  • Help make our communities safer;
  • Better ensure a second chance for Alabamians who have already paid their debt to society;
  • Protect Alabama from having to hire individuals whose criminal convictions are directly related to the job;
  • Help protect state employers from claims of discrimination.

Bill Outcome: SB 198 passed the Senate, but the House failed to take action on the bill. HB 257 did not receive a committee hearing in the House.

Establish Infectious Disease Elimination Pilot Programs

Bill Number(s): SB 169 (Sen. Singleton) & HB 37 (Rep. JD Williams)

Bill Summary: SB 169 and HB 37 would have allowed for syringe services programs in counties where there is a high risk of an outbreak of blood-borne diseases or where an outbreak or epidemic already exists.

Why we Supported: Syringe services programs would:

  • Create a data-driven approach to reducing the harms associated with drug use;
  • Improve public safety by  reducing the number of contaminated needles on streets, on playgrounds, and in trash receptacles, thereby protecting children, law enforcement personnel, and other emergency responders, sanitation workers, and others from needle sticks;
  • Decrease rates of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C transmission by reducing syringe sharing among injection drug users.

Bill Outcome: SB 169 received a favorable report from the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, but the full Senate failed to take action. HB 37 received a favorable report from the House Committee, but the full House failed to take action.

Prison Expansion

Bill Number(s): None filed

Bill Summary: Legislation to authorize the construction of new prisons was not filed in 2018.

Why we Opposed: This approach fails to address the underlying problems that fuel Alabama’s high incarceration rate. Any solution to Alabama’s prison overcrowding must focus on the root issues:

  • Ending the war on drugs;
  • Prioritizing substance and mental health treatment programs;
  • Removing hurdles to reentry;
  • Expanding alternatives to incarceration.

Bill Outcome: No legislation filed

 

Access to Justice Campaign Legislation

Equal justice under law requires a justice system that provides a level playing field for all Alabamians, regardless of one’s ability to pay. In order to achieve this, the state must ensure access to civil legal services, and protect the the fundamental right to counsel in criminal court.

Remove obstacles facing low-income Alabamians seeking access to the courts

Bill Numbers: SB 36 (Ward)

Bill Summary: SB 36 would have improved indigent parties’ opportunity to have filing fees waived in civil cases due to financial hardship.  The legislation specified that the pleading accompanying the statement of substantial hardship would be considered filed on the date the statement of substantial hardship was filed with the court, and that if the court were to find that no hardship exists, the party would have 30 days to submit payment.

Why we Supported: Waiving filing fees in civil cases due to financial hardship would:

  • Protects the rights of Alabamians;
  • Ensures greater access to the courts;
  • Create more clarity and uniformity throughout the civil justice system.

Bill Outcome: SB 36 received a favorable report from the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the full Senate failed to take action.

Protecting the Constitutional Rights of Indigent Defendants

Bill Numbers: HB 379 (England)

Bill Summary: HB 379 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 defendants. This legislation would have allowed the trial court judge and the Office of Indigent Defense Services—which oversees and administers funding and payments for indigent defense services—to grant a waiver when the lawyer has shown “good cause” based on objective criteria that demonstrates they have provided the defendant with a level of representation that merits more compensation than the cap allows. The waiver would have allowed for no more than double the amount of the current caps.

Why we Supported: A waiver process for the fee caps would:

  • Helps protect the constitutional rights of Alabamians;
  • Expands access to effective legal representation;
  • Increases access to fair justice.

Bill Outcome: HB 379 passed the House, but the full Senate failed to take action.

 

Additional Priority Legislation

Reform Predatory Lending

Bill Number(s): SB 138 (Sen. Orr)

Bill Summary: SB 138 would have required that payday loans be issued on 30 day repayment schedules, amending current law allowing them to be issued on repayment schedules between 10 to 31 days.

Why we Supported: 30 days to pay would:

  • Effectively cut APR’s in half for many of Alabama’s payday borrowers, which currently runs as high as 456% APR;
  • Reduce the likelihood of borrowers falling into debt traps that lead them to even more dire financial straits (30 percent of payday loan borrowers took out 12 payday loans or more according to the most recent annual data);
  • Reduce the amount of fees low-income borrowers would be required to pay (payday borrowers paid payday lenders more than $107 million in fees in the most recent year alone).

Bill Outcome: SB 138 passed the Senate, but the House failed to take action on the bill.

Challenge Expansion of Alabama’s Broken Death Penalty System

Bill Numbers: HB 161 (Sells)

Bill Summary: HB 161 would have expanded the list of death penalty-eligible crimes to make the murder of a first responder a capital offense, and added to the list of aggravating circumstances four types of victims: law enforcement officers, prison or jail guards, first responders, and children under 14.

Why we Opposed: Alabama Appleseed recognizes that Alabama’s capital punishment system is broken beyond repair, and thus legislation to expand its use cannot be justified. We should all agree that if we have a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. Yet, over 10 years ago the American Bar Association found problems throughout Alabama’s death penalty process – from interactions with law enforcement at the beginning to the post-conviction process at the end. In fact, the concerns were so serious that the ABA assessment team recommended a temporary moratorium on executions until the recommendations were implemented. The vast majority of those recommendations have still not been implemented. Alabama legislators should be focused on ensuring Alabama has a fair and accurate death penalty process, not expanding the class of people who can be executed under this broken system.

Bill Outcome: HB 161 passed the House, but failed on the Senate floor.

Alabama Appleseed today applauded the Alabama Senate’s vote to “ban the box” (SB198) on state employment applications. Banning the box would lead to greater opportunities for people with a criminal history as they re-enter their communities and the workforce.

“Banning the box better ensures that Alabamians seeking state employment are judged on their merit, not their mistakes,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Denying a person’s application without considering their qualifications or rehabilitation prevents people who’ve completed their sentence from getting a fair chance at a fresh start.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), more than 650,000 individuals are released from prison every year. The DOJ has identified three key elements to successful re-entry into our communities, one of which is finding and keeping a job.

“This legislation would help make our communities safer,” said Knaack. “As the Department of Justice found, recidivism rates are reduced when individuals are able to successfully re-enter their communities. And a key element of successful re-entry is helping individuals find and keep a job. By removing the criminal background box from state employment applications, individuals seeking state employment have an honest shot at securing a job. It’s a win-win – it provides people with a second chance to make an honest living and makes our communities safer.”

SB198 now moves to the House.

For additional information regarding SB198, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.