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. 

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The report can be found here.

On Tuesday, Alabama Appleseed joined a diverse set of twelve organizations asking the U.S. Supreme Court to find that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause applies to the states. The case is Timbs v. Indiana. Mr. Timbs was arrested during an undercover drug enforcement operation, pled guilty, paid approximately $1,200 in fees, and was sentenced to home detention and probation. Months after his arrest, the government initiated a civil proceeding to forfeit Mr. Timbs’ personal vehicle that he had purchased with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy.

“Civil asset forfeiture has evolved from a program intended to strip illicit profits from drug kingpins into a revenue-generating scheme for law enforcement that is widely used against people — disproportionately African American — accused of low-level crimes or no crime at all,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “We join a diverse set of organizations including the Drug Policy Alliance, FreedomWorks, NAACP, and Americans for Prosperity in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize that civil asset forfeiture’s current incarnation has become a stark example of the abuse of power that the excessive fines clause was meant to curtail.”

This amicus brief highlights the broad, ideologically diverse consensus around the need to restrain governmental abuse of civil asset forfeiture programs.  In addition to Alabama Appleseed, signatories to the brief include the Drug Policy Alliance, FreedomWorks, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, Americans for Prosperity, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Independence Institute (Colorado), Libertas (Utah), Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i, and the Rio Grande Foundation (New Mexico).

The brief can be found here.

For more information about how Alabama law enforcement abuse civil asset forfeiture, read our report here (cited in the amicus).

In response to Governor Kay Ivey’s announcement today that the Alabama Comptroller will now require sheriffs to sign an affidavit swearing that they will use jail food money for jail food, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice have released the following statements:

The following statement can be attributed to Aaron Littman, staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights:

“We strongly commend Governor Ivey and Comptroller Baxter for taking concrete action to address the misappropriation of large amounts of taxpayer money by sheriffs across the state. As Governor Ivey explained recently, treating jail food funds as personal income is both unreasonable and unsupported by the law. It is long past time for this abuse of public trust to end.”

The following statement can be attributed to Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice:

“Despite a long-standing Attorney General opinion stating that taxpayer dollars meant for jail food must be spent on jail food, some Alabama sheriffs have continued to treat jail food money as their own personal income. Today’s action by Governor Ivey will help ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on public services. We thank Governor Ivey for bringing increased accountability to Alabama’s jail food program.”

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 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.