On Dec. 4, 2019, the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Reform convened at the Alabama Statehouse to hear proposals from the public on how to address Alabama’s prison crisis. Appleseed Research Director Leah Nelson was among the 20 presenters, including families of the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, advocates, academics, lawyers, direct service providers, and faith leaders who shared proposals.  Below are Leah’s comments, based on Appleseed’s extensive research around prison diversion programs.  

Montgomery, Alabama — My name is Leah Nelson. I’m research director at Alabama Appleseed. I have spent 2 years surveying and interviewing hundreds of people in drug courts and diversion programs.

What I learned is that these programs are too expensive for people who lack wealth to participate in them without making outrageous sacrifices. And they are not designed to accommodate the everyday realities of folks who have jobs, children, or other obligations they must attend to.

Appleseed’s Leah Nelson shares her research on Alabama’s two-tiered justice system with the study group.

How many people in this room could drop everything several times a week to drive to another county to leave a urine sample? How many could get most of a day off once every couple of weeks to spend hours in a courtroom waiting for our chance to speak with a judge? Now imagine doing that if you were a single mom, if you worked at a job that paid by the hour and had an unpredictable schedule, or if you didn’t have a car.

I’d like to tell you a little about two people who cannot be here today.

The first person is a man named Ryan, who is in drug court in Shelby County right this minute and who will go to work after he’s through.

Ryan exemplifies the shortcomings of the system as it currently exists. In 2017, he was convicted of unauthorized possession of a controlled substance and put on probation in Chilton County. In early 2019, he reoffended in Shelby County and was accepted into Shelby’s drug court, widely acknowledged to be one of the toughest in the state.

 

Ryan excelled in rehab and got his life back together, but he didn’t understand he was supposed to still be checking in with his probation officer in Chilton. He thought his supervision had been consolidated in Shelby. When he learned there was a warrant out for his arrest, he turned himself in. He sat in jail for 3 months while much of the work he had done to rebuild his life disintegrated. He’s out now, but he’s struggling. He earns $400 a week to support himself and his young son. Between drug tests, supervision fees, drug court fees, and fines, he pays about $700 a month. That’s almost half of his income.

The second person I’d like to tell you about is a woman named Amber.

Amber was released from Tutwiler into Madison County Community Corrections this fall. She was so relieved be get home and get back to supporting and caring for her two teenaged sons. She received job training and multiple certifications while she was in Tutwiler. She couldn’t wait to get to work.

And she had to work, because Community Corrections requires her to pay $290/month for electronic monitoring plus another $20/week for drug tests. She had to bring them the first installment within 24 hours of her release or she’d be taken straight back to prison.

Amber has been offered multiple jobs, only to show up for the first day of work and be told they didn’t need her after all because of her felony. Right now, she brings home about $250 per week from unskilled labor she found through a staffing agency which takes part of her paycheck. About a third of her monthly income goes toward electronic monitoring and drug tests alone. That’s unsustainable.

 

A packed room gathered to hear public proposals at the December 4 meeting of the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Reform.

 

 

She’s terrified of what going back to Tutwiler would mean for her family. When we spoke in late November, she wasn’t sure she’d still be home to spend Christmas with her boys.

Amber and Ryan are far from alone in struggling with the financial and operational obligations of diversion programs in Alabama. These programs have been described to the governor’s study group as unfunded, but that’s not accurate. The state doesn’t pay for them: instead, in most places, diversion programs are funded by the people who participate in them. And those payments are made at a terrible cost.

In 2018, Appleseed worked with partners to survey nearly 900 Alabamians about their experience with the courts. About 20% of the people we surveyed reported they were turned down for a diversion program like drug court because they could not afford it. About 15% had been kicked out of a diversion program because they were unable to keep up with payments.

In 2019, we followed up with a survey of a smaller group of people, all of whom had participated in some form of diversion program. Most of the people we surveyed were poor. 64% of them made less than $20K/year.

Most of them had been found indigent. Most of them had no idea how much the program would cost before they pled in. Yet they were still required to pay a median amount of $1500. Only one in 10 had ever had their payments reduced due to inability to pay.

Without that relief, two thirds gave up a basic necessity like food, rent, or car payments to keep up with their payments. More than a third took out a payday loan. And 30% admitted they had committed a crime to keep up with their payments.

Even so, 30% were forced to drop out because they couldn’t afford it or couldn’t keep up with the frequent drug tests and court appearances. The consequences were dire: One-fifth of people who were unable to complete their diversion program for structural or financial reasons found themselves incarcerated as a result. Our failure to make these programs workable for poor people is driving prison overcrowding.

Alabama can and must make diversion programs more accessible to poor people. To start with, judges should conduct individualized ability to pay determinations that take people’s financial realities into account.

Second, programs should be portable and easy to consolidate. As a rule, no one should be on more than one form of diversion or paying for supervision by multiple jurisdictions or entities. And folks should be able to serve their sentences where they live, not where they offended.

Finally, all diversion programs should track individuals’ progress and remain vigilant about how they can do better.  If these programs are to serve their purpose of giving Alabamians who have made mistakes a second chance and keeping families and communities healthy and strong, they must account for the everyday realities of the people who participate in them.

There is a lot of promise in diversion, but these programs are not accessible to people who lack wealth. If we don’t take steps to correct this, Alabama will continue to have one form of justice for the rich and a very different one for the poor.

In January, 2019, Appleseed will release its full report on the two-tiered justice system created by prison diversion programs funded on the backs of participants.

By Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder

As I wrap up a whirlwind first year as executive director of Alabama Appleseed, I could not be more excited about the work we have done and the places we are heading. This has been a banner year for Appleseed. We have confronted laws and policies that harm vulnerable Alabamians, celebrated key victories, and cemented our reputation as a leading advocacy organizations in Alabama. It has been my honor to advance the work of this storied institution, and I wanted to share some highlights with you as 2019 comes to a close. 

At the statehouse, we netted three big legislative wins:

  • Our investigation, litigation, and advocacy around sheriffs personally pocketing tax dollars meant to fund food for inmates in their custody, including one sheriff who purchased a $740,000 beach house with jail food funds, led to the passage of legislation that ends this Depression-era practice once and for all.
  • Our groundbreaking 2018 report on civil asset forfeiture abuses in Alabama, Forfeiting Your Rights, led to legislation that requires law enforcement to track and publicize how much money and property they seize from the people they police. We expect this new, comprehensive, public database to corroborate the widespread abuses we discovered during our investigations, and we will use its findings to lead the charge toward ending civil asset forfeiture altogether.                                                                                                   
  • We also changed laws related to filing fees for indigent people in civil courts. It used to be that a victim’s lawsuit could be thrown out if they could not pay hundreds of dollars in filing fees quickly enough. Not anymore. This year, we succeeded in changing the law so that all Alabamians have greater access to our civil courts regardless of whether they can afford to pay the filing fees. 

 Appleseed staff with Brewer Torbert honoree Bryan Stevenson

In 2019, we also continued our service as the preeminent, trusted source for trailblazing public policy research and game-changing reports that document the harms of bad laws in Alabama. We published two major reports in 2019: Broke: How Payday Lenders Crush Alabama Communities, and Hall Monitors with Handcuffs: How Alabama’s Unregulated, Unmonitored School Resource Officer Program Threatens the State’s Most Vulnerable Children. We simultaneously completed intensive, statewide research projects that will underpin forthcoming reports in 2020. These reports are the foundation of our approach to advocacy. Our investigative work quantifies, makes visible, and humanizes the issues; it sparks the data-informed, solution-oriented conversations that lead to new ways forward; it is the resource that we take to legislators and to communities across the state as we make the case for change.                                                                                       

And indeed, an essential part of our mission is ensuring that our research does not just live on a bookshelf. That’s why we have led public events, community forums, town halls, and stakeholder meetings all across Alabama in 2019, from Dothan to Florence, from Huntsville to Mobile, from Tuscaloosa to Phenix City, from Andalusia to Birmingham. You can be sure that in 2020, we will be inviting people into our work in a community near you, if not in your hometown. The issues we tackle are statewide in nature, and we are committed to a statewide strategy to win a better Alabama. We need all of us engaged in this work. 

Perhaps our most poignant victory  was our representation of Mr. Alvin Kennard, a remarkable gentleman who spent 36 years in an Alabama prison following a $50 robbery in 1983. Mr. Kennard is one of hundreds of people who were sentenced to life without parole under Alabama’s harsh “Three Strikes” law. Our success in charting a path out of prison for Mr. Kennard someone who poses no threat to society has raised hopes that others may soon return to their families.   

We are exploring options to scale this work up to help other people sentenced to die in prison for offenses with no serious injury. It is just one part of our work to confront Alabama’s dire prison crisis, which was documented this April by a Department of Justice report that declared Alabama’s prison system unconstitutional. Today, only a few months since his release, Mr. Kennard is living with family and gainfully employed at a car dealership.                                                                                                                                                         

We are proud of these accomplishments all the more so because we have achieved them with a small team on a small budget. Our team of four dedicated and inventive staff members at Alabama Appleseed stretches every dollar to tackle the toughest challenges in this state. We have cultivated a statewide network of supporters, allies, and advocates that we bring to bear at the legislature, and our work has garnered national attention and acclaim from voices as varied as The New York Times, NPR, FOX News, The Washington Post, Reason Magazine, the Brookings Institution, and the Aspen Institute.  

Alabama needs Appleseed more than ever, and we are ready. As we reflect on this year of hard-earned victories, I thank you for your financial support and I ask that you stay with us in the coming year. Justice and equity for all Alabamians cannot be won without you. 

I hope that you have a happy holiday season, and that you feel proud of the work you have made possible this year. At Appleseed, we believe in a better Alabama, and we’re fighting for it. We will see you in the new year. 

 

 

Appleseed Research Director Leah Nelson listens to expert panelists at our Fines and Fees event with the Aspen Institute.

 

 

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

BESSEMER — Alvin Kennard is a free man, home surrounded by family and friends after 36 years in an Alabama prison for a $50 robbery in 1983.

He couldn’t stop smiling and thanking God for an opportunity too long coming. He says he’s grateful, overjoyed, and not mad.  Mr. Kennard has more patience than I will ever muster concerning Alabama’s draconian laws, excessive sentences for minor crimes, and permanent punishment of the poor.

Bessemer Judge David Carpenter appointed me to represent Mr. Kennard this spring.  Judge Carpenter knew about our work at Alabama Appleseed around poverty and the criminal justice system.  He noticed Mr. Kennard’s unusual sentence — life without parole for $50 from a bakery — through a routine pro se court filing that came across his desk.  With no attorney, Mr. Kennard was trying to get the judge’s attention. 

Turned out, Mr. Kennard lived in Donaldson’s faith dorm. He’d been in no trouble for 15 years.  He had family who still regularly visited him and put money into his prison account so he could have decent shoes. Had he been sentenced today, under Alabama’s Sentencing Guidelines, he would have been eligible for a maximum sentence of about 20 years.

Tuesday, I stood with Mr. Kennard as Judge Carpenter righted this wrong and resentenced this 58-year-old man to time served.  The courtroom erupted with joy from the crowd gathered to support a man who previously had been condemned to die in prison.

While this week’s events have been incredible for Alvin Kennard, there are hundreds more Alvins in Alabama’s prisons, men and women serving life without parole for offenses in which no one was injured.  There are thousands more serving life sentences who are at the whim of an increasingly politicized parole board.

Alabama’s embrace of permanent punishment has contributed to our prison crisis.  Alabama has the most overcrowded, corrupt, and violent prisons in the country, described as unconstitutional by the  U.S. Department of Justice. It extends to our communities, where people in poverty are jailed for inability to pay court fines and fees, and lose drivers licenses and jobs over traffic violations and minor misdemeanors.  It extends into our drug policy, where 1,000 Alabamians per year are saddled with felony convictions for possession of marijuana, a substance that’s legal in states where half of Americans live. 

So while today was for rejoicing with one of the kindest, gentlest clients I have ever had the pleasure to represent, tomorrow we have our work cut out for us here at Appleseed. 

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

A few weeks ago, a search dog working for Alabama’s Department of Corrections sadly died after exposure to contraband narcotics.  ADOC leadership, including Commissioner Jefferson Dunn, gathered for his funeral complete with 21-gun salute, an American flag presentation, and media coverage. His name was Jake.  

Over the last two years, at least 22 people in state prisons have also died from narcotics overdoses, primarily synthetic cannabinoid, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report, which suggests ADOC staff who are not screened before entry are likely responsible.  Prison incident reports list these deaths as “natural.”

We don’t know their names.

Why? Because Alabama’s 45-year history of incarcerating vast numbers of people cheaply has produced disastrous results. 

We failed in 1975 when U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson found “massive constitutional infirmities which plague Alabama’s prisons.”  And we are failing now with violence, homicide, and drug overdoses so pervasive that the ADOC cannot keep track of who dies in its custody, as the U.S. Justice Department documented in April after its two-year investigation again found our prisons unconstitutional.   A raft of federal cases and investigations in between reached the same conclusion.

All along, Alabama incarceration rates have remained the fifth-highest in the country, prison spending the lowest, yet our violent crime rates are higher than most every other southeastern state.  Our tough-on-crime ideology is not making us safer. And spending too little is costing us too much: in death, in degradation, and in suffering.

Any other public policy that produced such dismal outcomes would surely be scrapped. 

Instead, the state is talking about doubling down.   Its main plan to address this crisis involves continuing to incarcerate vast numbers of people on the cheap. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has proposed a public-private partnership that relies on private corporations to build and own three new megaprisons with the state leasing approximately 9,000 beds. This can be done with no tax increases, state leaders insist, which means Alabama can keep doing what it has always done.

“I am confident that the development of these facilities will be a major step forward,” Governor Ivey said in an announcement June 27 that the state has begun the procurement process for new prisons. 

This proposal is deeply troubling to those of us who have watched the for-profit prison industry overpromise to states and cities for 25 years, create nightmare prisons from Idaho to Mississippi, then rebrand itself as a real estate business. 

As recently as 2012, Federal District Judge Carleton Reeves wrote that the GEO Group-managed Walnut Grove Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi was “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world” and “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts.”  Will this company be welcomed into Alabama?

In its new role as landlord, CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, failed to repair rusted doors, replace damaged windows, seal cracks in the walls and floors, and patch leaks in the roof, even though maintaining the Hernando County Jail near Tampa, Florida was a requirement in its contract with the county.  The County took over and was hit with $1 million in deferred maintenance costs. Will we lease our largest prisons from them?  

Private construction of just one massive high-tech prison in Pennsylvania, SCI Phoenix, ran nearly three years behind schedule, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.. The state was forced to move prisoners into the facility, touted as a creative public-private partnership, before construction was complete.  Lawsuits abound. 

Already, the State of Alabama has proven its inability to house people humanely.  Adding private companies with abysmal human rights records and a mandate to turn a profit into the mix does not bode well.

It is also deeply troubling when contrasted with the smarter approach of other southern states such as Texas and North Carolina, which are closing prisons and increasing rehabilitative community options without sacrificing public safety.  In fact, since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of more than 48,000 state prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $345 million, primarily in favor of rehabilative options. according to Governing Magazine. 

Alabama has not yet locked down the details of building itself out of this crisis. If we can find the political will, there is a better way.  

The court system touts drug courts, pre-trial diversion, and similar community-based options as alternatives to incarceration, as second chances.  But these programs are an inconsistent patchwork at best, and more importantly, they are not well funded. Instead, poor people are expected to pay thousands in fees — administrative fees, drug-testing fees, treatment fees, evaluation fees, and so on — and spend hours away from work for court appearances.  If they can’t keep up, they don’t graduate, then they become poor people with felony convictions, and usually no drivers licenses. 

Instead of pouring nearly a billion dollars into new prisons, Alabama could shore up these kinds of community alternatives rather than expecting indigent people to pay for them.  Along the way, the State must confront the fact that our bare bones spending on mental health and substance abuse services — 50th in the country — contributes to incarceration.  

Also, we must improve re-entry services for the formerly incarcerated. People usually leave prison with no identification, no job, and thousands of dollars in court fines and fees.  Churches and nonprofits — many ably run by formerly incarcerated people who know the obstacles and solutions better than anyone else — are struggling mightily to bridge the gaps. Again, a fraction of the new-prison money invested into re-entry services would change outcomes.     

Finally, anyone touting new prisons should closely read the Department of Justice report which unsparing makes clear that “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse. And new facilities would quickly fall into a state of disrepair if prisoners are unsupervised and largely left to their own devices, as is currently the case.” 

We cannot build our way out of this problem. Instead, we need to invest in community-based solutions and mental health services that help prevent people from ending up in prisons to begin with, and support them after they come out. Smart investment in criminal justice reform would improve public safety, increase our workforce – something the Governor says is a top priority – and make Alabama more prosperous. Penny-wise, dollar foolish investments like the plan to keep on doing what we’ve always done – lock our neighbors up as cheaply as possible – will most likely result in more of the same horrific results. 

Photograph by Val Downes

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently solicited public comments related to their proposal to weaken protections for payday loan borrowers. An open letter submitted to the CFPB by Alabama Appleseed follows:    


Dear Director Kraninger,

For many years, The Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice (“Alabama Appleseed”) has been documenting the numerous and varied harms caused by high-cost lending in our communities. We have specific concern about the impact that payday loans have on more than 200,000 Alabama borrowers every year, and we were there in Birmingham when former Director Cordray kicked off the payday loan rulemaking process in 2012. That process, begun here in Alabama, produced essential consumer protections for payday loan borrowers after years of careful study. When your agency’s 2017 payday and vehicle title loan rule (“Rule”) was announced, we were particularly grateful for the introduction of ability-to-repay requirements. Today, we understand that those needed protections are potentially at risk of being eliminated, and that Alabama borrowers are thereby at risk as well. We write to you urgently counseling against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) nullifying the Rule.

Here in Alabama, more than 32,000 payday loans are made every single week. These loans often include annual percentage rates (“APRs”) as high as 456 percent, and under current state law, payday lenders may require borrowers to fully repay the loans in as few as ten days. When lenders are not required to make any determination of a borrower’s ability to repay loans — let alone loans with such short terms and such high APRs — it does not take much imagination to predict the fates of many borrowers. In our years of experience working with payday loan borrowers in Alabama, one thing has become abundantly clear: without any ability-to-repay requirements, payday loans are a greater source of long-term debt than short-term credit.

In 2019, Alabama Appleseed published a comprehensive report about the impact of payday lending in our state (“Broke: How Payday Lenders Crush Alabama Communities”). We spent six months driving to every corner of Alabama, from Huntsville to Dothan, from Tuscaloosa to Mobile, from Jasper to Anniston speaking directly with borrowers and charitable service providers. Across geography, race, gender, age, and reason for borrowing, the message we heard was consistent: payday loans hurt more than they helped, and vanishingly few borrowers were able to repay their loans according to the contractual terms. In other words, most borrowers were unable to use the loans as advertised, and without any ability-to-repay requirements on the part of lenders, supposedly short-term loans standardly became long-term debts.

The Alabamians who we interviewed took out their loans to meet necessary living expenses. We spoke to a mother of two disabled children in Dothan, Alabama, who took out a $300 payday loan to bury her father. She was ruined by the debt. Another mother of twin daughters in Dothan took out a $200 payday loan to purchase back-to-school supplies. She ended up having to close her bank account to protect rent and grocery money because payday lenders were making direct withdrawals to service the debt they had trapped her in. We spoke to a disabled veteran in Marshall County, Alabama, who took out payday loans to access medical appointments in Huntsville. The outstanding debt has prevented him from affording medical equipment necessary to his recovery, and it has also kept him from being able to financially support his elementary-aged son. We spoke to a tornado victim in Madison County, Alabama, whose home was completely destroyed in a tornado. She still suffers from the payday loan debt she accrued trying to survive in the aftermath.

Charitable direct service providers across the state regularly encounter similarly untenable debts. In Tuscaloosa, the executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity shared the precipitous number of potential clients who cannot qualify for a Habitat Home because payday loan debt disqualifies them under the organization’s debt-to-income ratio standards. In Anniston, the director of a small direct assistance nonprofit shared that young mothers come through their doors all the time seeking help in the face of payday loan debt. In Jasper, the community action agency spoke of how residents of rural Walker County had lost their homes as a result of payday loan debt. In Huntsville, a legal services attorney explained that a large proportion of their clients come in the door with civil legal needs that, upon exploration, have payday loan debt as a root cause.

Alabamians deserve and need access to credit, but Alabamians do not need — and deserve better than — loans that are designed to fail and become sources of unworkable debt. Ability-to-repay requirements are a foundational business practice in virtually every other realm of consumer lending. It is a baseline, reasonable expectation. The CFPB’s introduction of this standard for payday and title lenders in the 2017 Rule was welcome, necessary, and overdue. The hurried elimination of this Rule being considered, after so long and deliberative a process, is ill-advised and not in keeping with the mission of the CFPB. Alabamians will be hurt if this rule is nullified, and we cannot be silent when our communities are at risk.

We ask that you take the time to familiarize yourself with our comprehensive report, which is freely available online in scrollable PDF format at www.alabamaappleseed.org/broke. We ask that you maintain the ability-to-repay standards introduced in the 2017 Rule. We ask that you go further and expand upon its protections for payday and title loan borrowers.

Alabamians need protections against predatory lenders who make bad faith loans and make hard times even harder for our people. We fight for those protections at the state level every single in Alabama. We ask that you do your part to protect us at the federal level, too.

By Phillip Ensler, Appleseed Policy Counsel

In 2014, a little boy drowned in an apartment swimming pool with no fence.  His mother sued the owners but because of backlogs and barriers in the courts, she was denied.

Alabama Appleseed has been fighting for a solution to this injustice, and this week the Alabama Legislature responded by passing SB30, which provides greater access to justice for low-income Alabamians. The bill now goes to the governor’s desk, where she is expected to sign it into law.

SB30 ensures that backlogs in the court system to approve applications for filing fee waivers  do not prevent low-income Alabamians from being heard in 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 can 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 fixes a real-world problem. In 2014, Coretta Arrington tragically lost her 6 year old son when he drowned in the swimming pool of their Montgomery apartment complex. Ms. Arrington sued the property owners to hold them accountable for failing to put fencing around the pool area, which would have prevented her son’s death. When she filed the case, she also submitted a hardship waiver because did not have the money to pay the court filing fee. Before the court considered her case, the judge had to decide whether Ms. Arrington was eligible for the hardship waiver. Unfortunately, the decision on her hardship waiver was made too late, and the statute of limitations prohibited her case from moving forward. In the end, Ms. Arrington was denied the opportunity to seek justice for her son’s death.

SB30 ensures that people  like Ms. Arrington will not be denied access to the courts simply because they cannot afford a court filing fee and the court takes time to consider their waiver application. Under the new legislation, one’s lawsuit would be considered filed with the court on the same day as their fee-waiver application. This prevents the statute of limitations from expiring while the judge considers the application. This legislation ensures that all Alabamians have better access to the courts, regardless of their wealth.

The passage of this bill is commendable and important. But there is still much work to be done to ensure that all Alabamians have access to quality civil legal representation.

In 2017, more than 422,000 low income households in Alabama 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 these necessary legal services, 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 three states that fails to provide funding for civil legal services.

Despite the vital needs faced by low income Alabamians, civil legal aid providers in Alabama rely primarily on federal funds to operate, leaving Alabama with an approximately $36.6 million annual funding gap.

Civil legal aid is not only essential to Alabamians in need, it also provides substantial benefits to Alabama’s communities. According to a 2018 study from the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, 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.

As we applaud the passage of SB30 this week, we must keep fighting to ensure that the depth of one’s pocketbook does not determine whether or not he or she can receive legal representation and access to justice.

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.

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.