My name is Phillip Ensler and I am excited to have recently joined Alabama Appleseed as Policy Counsel. In my role, I will provide direction and leadership to advance our policy goals. This includes managing the Access to Justice Campaign to improve access to adequate counsel for indigent clients in criminal and civil cases.

I graduated from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York this past May. Although I am a native New Yorker, coming to Montgomery is like returning home – or as we say down here, Sweet Home Alabama!

My history in Alabama dates back to when I was in college and visited Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham to see the sacred sites of the Civil Rights Movement. I was humbled and inspired by standing in the very places where Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and countless other heroes and foot soldiers had the courage to stand up for a more just and equal Alabama.

Despite the significant progress that has been made, I was also aware that there was still much more to be done. In this spirit, I moved to Montgomery in 2012 to serve as a Teach for America corps member, where I worked to help close the educational achievement gap. My students were just as talented and intelligent as students at any other school, but they were not given the same opportunities to succeed due their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

My experience in the classroom motivated me to attend law school in order to gain the skills and knowledge to fight to make the law fairer so everyone in Alabama can achieve their full potential. I was committed to returning to Alabama because it was a community that welcomed me with open arms, and it is where I have met some of the most dedicated and passionate people in my life.

After my second year of law school, I worked as a legal intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, where I worked on juvenile rights and education issues. And now, I am looking forward to the work Appleseed will do to ensure that more students are receiving the education and opportunities they deserve and do not become just another number in the system of mass incarceration.

We also have much work to do in the area of civil and criminal defense legal services for disadvantaged Alabamians. The words “Equal Justice Under the Law” are engraved on the façade of the United States Supreme Court. Yet in order to fully live up to that democratic principle in Alabama, we must ensure that all citizens have access to adequate lawyers, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Our justice system should not depend on which side has deeper financial pockets.

That is why at Appleseed we will be working with partners throughout the state to increase funding for civil legal services. This will ensure that those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer can continue to have access to legal assistance for vital services such as applying for veterans benefits or seeking to remain in their home in the face of eviction.

On the criminal side, we will similarly work with stakeholders to ensure that indigent criminal defendants receive adequate counsel. The determination of truth and justice in a criminal case should not be predicated on whether a defendant can afford an attorney. At the Innocence Project, where I also did a legal internship, we saw in case after case that defendants were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for decades because they did not have access to adequate counsel during their cases. In order to prevent such injustices in Alabama, we will examine which methods are most effective in upholding indigent defendants’ Constitutional right to counsel. We will then advocate for these best practices to be implemented state-wide.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” At Appleseed we are determined to continue that effort for all of Alabama. I am grateful to be a part of such work and I look forward to working with activists, partners, and leaders throughout the state to make it happen.

Montgomery, AL – Alabama Appleseed, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, and 17 other civil rights and poverty law organizations from across the nation today submitted an amicus brief in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit challenging Virginia’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of those who cannot afford to pay court fees and fines. A lower court dismissed the case for jurisdictional reasons.

As the brief notes, the “mandatory license suspension for nonpayment of court debt is both unconstitutional and fundamentally unfair because it imposes substantially more severe punishment upon those who are unable to pay. Because the poverty rate of black Virginians is disproportionately high, and because blacks face well-documented bias in charging and sentencing, the statutory scheme also has a disparate impact on black Virginians. For those unable to pay court debts, Virginia’s license suspension scheme perpetuates a cycle of poverty and continued entrenchment in the justice system that devastates individual lives while doing nothing to further Virginia’s interest in collecting its court debts.”

​“Virginians are not alone, Alabamians who cannot afford their fines and fees also face the suspension of their driver’s license,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Access to a diver’s license is not a luxury – it’s often a requirement for getting to work, school, or the doctor’s office. States must stop punishing people for being poor. We urge the 4th Circuit to ensure that this case moves forward.”

A copy of the brief can be found here.

My name is Lisa Cagle and I will be a second year law student at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama. While I am originally from North Dakota, I am excited to be living in Alabama and enjoying the warm weather year round. I may not have been born here, but I got here as fast as I could.

My background is not your typical law student background. I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemical Engineering from UCLA. However, life had other plans for me, and I became a teacher in 2008. During my first year teaching, I read an inspirational book by Wes Stafford titled Too Small To Ignore that changed the way I viewed teaching. In this book, Stafford stresses the importance of focusing on children and their unique needs and not waiting until a person has reached adulthood to begin to consider them a quality member of society. Shortly after that, I met my first child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Finding unique ways to teach that child was an amazing experience for me. As a result, I spent many of my continuing education hours learning about special needs and how to design a classroom setting and modify my teaching style to accommodate children with special needs. Over the course of eight years of teaching, I had the privilege to work with several children with varying needs and the honor to help educate families on special needs and the accommodations and therapies available to help these children learn and thrive in a structured school environment.

After several years of working with children and families, I decided to go to law school to enable me to continue to work with families in ways that I was unable to as a teacher. I desire to do more than recommend other resources and professionals to families in need. I would like to be one of the resources and professionals that a family can turn to. This is also one of the reasons why I am excited to intern at Alabama Appleseed this summer. Appleseed has a reputation for creating change to better the lives of people in Alabama and I am excited to be a part of this.

My project this summer will be the school to prison pipeline. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the school to prison pipeline is the metaphor for the student disciplinary issues at school that result in students leaving school and entering the criminal justice system. The ABA has done research to discover that a disproportionate number of minority students and students with special needs are dismissed from school, resulting in a disproportionate number of minority students and students with special needs in the criminal justice system. As a former teacher, this issue is near and dear to my heart. I have received training on ways to help children with special needs adjust to a classroom setting and believe that all children deserve a chance for a quality education, not just the ones who have the ability to conform to a “typical classroom setting.” I am honored and thrilled to working as an intern for Alabama Appleseed and am looking forward to continuing Appleseed’s work this summer.

Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 17 Appleseed Centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

Below is a summary of the priority issues we worked on during the 2017 session:

Bills we supported that became law

Judicial Override of Death Sentences
SB16 (Sen. Brewbaker) & HB32 (Rep. England)
SB16 & HB32 prohibit a judge from overriding a jury’s recommendation and imposing a death sentence in cases where the jury voted for life without parole in a capital case. Prior to this legislation, a judge was not required to accept a jury’s vote in the sentencing phase. Alabama Appleseed supported this legislation because it will help protect against arbitrary and unreliable death sentences.

Bills we supported that failed to pass this year

Predatory Lending Reform
SB 284 (Sen. Orr)
SB 284 would have extended the loan period to 30 days for payday loans at the existing fee, limited borrowers to four loans in a 12-month period, mandated a seven-day “cooling-off” period between payday loans, automatically converted unpaid loans to a three-month installment loan with equal payments, capped interest rates for all loans of more than $2,000 at 60 percent APR, and removed auto title loans from the Alabama Pawnshop Act. Alabama Appleseed supported this bill because it would have begun the process of reining in predatory lenders.
Outcome: Indefinitely postponed in Senate

Predatory Lending Reform
HB 321 (Rep. Fincher)
HB 321 would have proposed an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama capping the maximum interest rate a lender may charge an individual on a consumer loan, line of credit, or other financial product at 36 percent per year. Alabama Appleseed supported this bill because it would have brought Alabama in line with 15 other states and the District of Columbia that have either capped their interest rate at 36 percent or outlawed payday loans altogether.
Outcome: Left pending committee action in House

Marijuana Decriminalization
HB 269 (Rep. Todd)     

HB 269 would have made possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a fine only offense ($250/first offense & $500/subsequent offenses). A conviction for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana would not have appeared on the individual’s criminal record. Alabama Appleseed supported this legislation because it would have reduced the likelihood that Alabamians possessing small amounts of marijuana would be funneled into our criminal justice system and reduced the disproportionate harm that the war on marijuana has on communities of color.
Outcome: Left pending committee action in House

Ban the Box
SB 200 (Sen. Ross)
SB 200 would have prohibited a state or local government employer from asking an applicant about their criminal history until a conditional offer of employment was made. The government employer would have been permitted to withdraw the job offer if the applicant’s criminal conviction was directly related to the job. The bill would also have established clear criteria for state agencies to consider during the screening process. Alabama Appleseed supported this legislation because it would have enhanced public safety, begun to remedy the long-term consequences of a criminal justice system that has disproportionately harmed African Americans, and given many Alabamians a second chance.
Outcome: Passed Senate, left pending committee action in House

Civil Asset Forfeiture
SB 299 (Sen. Orr)

SB 299 would have mandated any agency that takes property or receives proceeds under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture program to annually report this information to the Attorney General, who would then make this information available to the public. Alabama Appleseed supported this legislation because it would have brought needed sunlight to a program that incentivises policing for profit and disproportionately harms individuals who cannot afford an attorney.
Outcome: Indefinitely postponed in Senate

Bills we opposed that became law

Predatory Lending
HB 314 (Rep. Johnson)
HB 314 amends the Alabama Small Loan Act to authorize licensed lenders to make loans up to $1500 (previously $1,000), increases non-refundable fees, and extends the loan term to 18 months. Alabama Appleseed opposed this legislation because it will increase the cost of loans for borrowers by as much as 174 percent.

Death Penalty
SB 187 (Sen. Ward)

SB 187 sets a 365‐day time limit to file a Rule 32 petition challenging an individual’s capital conviction and requires this time to run concurrently with the direct appeal. It also requires the appointment of counsel for indigent individuals for purposes of the post-conviction appeal and sets a $7,500 cap for total fees. Alabama Appleseed opposed this bill because it will further undermine the fairness and accuracy of Alabama’s death penalty process.

Bills we opposed that were defeated

Predatory Lending
HB 535 (Rep. Garrett)
HB 535 would have converted the loan of a borrower who was unable to repay the loan to a 60-day loan at no additional fee, but would have limited this to one 60-day extension per year. The bill would also have created a cap of 22 payday loans per year and would have created a 48 hour cooling off period after a loan was paid in full. Alabama Appleseed opposed this bill because it would have failed to address any of the core problems plaguing the payday loan industry, including a permissible 456 percent interest rate.
Outcome: Passed House, carried over in Senate

Prison Construction
SB 59 & SB 302 (Sen. Ward)
SB 59 & SB 302 would have authorized the construction of up to four new prisons at a cost, funded via bonds, of nearly one billion dollars. Alabama Appleseed opposed these bills because they failed to address the underlying problems that fuel Alabama’s high incarceration rate. Any solution to Alabama’s prison overcrowding must focus on the root issues – ending the drug war, prioritizing substance & mental health treatment, removing hurdles to reentry, and expanding alternatives to incarceration.
Outcomes: SB 59 – Indefinitely postponed in Senate & SB 302 – Passed Senate, read second time in House

My name is Ellen, and I am looking forward to being an intern this summer with Alabama Appleseed! I just completed my first year of law school at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up in the Nashville, Tennessee area, and I graduated from college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Before coming to law school, I worked for nonprofit organizations providing educational resources to immigrant and low-income communities. I was an AmeriCorps member in Arlington, Virginia with the Arlington Education and Employment Program, where I taught English as a Second Language to adult immigrants from a multitude of countries and of a variety of ages. After that, I was an AmeriCorps member in Nashville, Tennessee with an after-school program for middle school students. That opportunity led to working for The Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee (CRIT), where I was a Site Coordinator for one of its after-school programs for middle school students. Later, I was promoted to being the Associate Director of all of CRIT’s after-school programs. Around that time, I became interested in going to law school to be an attorney. CRIT had an immigration attorney, and the work the attorney did stuck out to me. He helped immigrants, who were already positively impacting the Nashville community, establish residence in this country after suffering traumatic situations in their home countries. Before going to law school, I also shadowed public defenders. One day I went back in the county jail and met a young girl, about 15 years old, who was charged with making meth with a male about 20 years old. She struck me as a girl who may have made a bad choice as to who she became friends with but if given the opportunity she would make better choices.

I am excited about the work I will do this summer with Alabama Appleseed. The major project I will be working on is to set the groundwork for a heir property project to help individuals gain clear title to their land. Heir property is property that automatically goes to a deceased person’s heirs when the deceased person did not provide for the ownership of the property in a will. Although there might be numerous heirs to a property, often only one heir is using the property. In fact, many of the heirs are probably not aware of their interest in the property. The main issue with heir property is that the property cannot be used in a way as it could with clear title. For example, the property cannot be leased or financed without the consent of all the heirs to the property. In addition, the heir property owner using the land can be forced to leave if others with an interest in the property bring a judicial partition action. This often happens when the heirs who are not using the land sell their interest to a non-family member.

Resolving heir property issues is particularly difficult for people who do not have access to legal assistance. Alabama Appleseed’s goal is to create resources that will help volunteer attorneys and law students navigate the hurdles individuals face when seeking clear title to their land.

Other projects I look forward to working on this summer include researching barriers to justice and policies that feed Alabama’s school-to-prison pipeline. I am very excited to be working on these projects because I know it will make a difference in the lives of individuals finding themselves in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. I chose to intern with Alabama Appleseed because the organization is effective at advocating for just policy for Alabama residents. I look forward to furthering Appleseed’s work this summer!

Montgomery, AL – On May 23, Alabama Appleseed, joined by the National Appleseed and seven additional state Appleseed Centers, submitted a letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) in response to an opportunity for public comment on 12 CFR 1005 Subpart B, the “Remittance Rule.” A derivative of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protections Act of 2010, the Remittance Rule specifically and importantly deals with consumer remittance disclosures and related consumer protections.

Appleseed has been studying the impact of these protections on consumers for some time. In Appleseed’s 2016 reports “Sending Money: The Path Forward,” and “Sending Money: In Their Own Voices,” Appleseed shared its findings on international remittance customers’ preferences and behavior since the adoption of the “Remittance Rule.”

In the letter, accessible here, Appleseed strongly recommends retention of the Remittance Rule with specific recommendations to further study the impact of these regulations so that consumers have access to critical information, that disclosures are clear, and that protections are meaningful.

Eight times since 1976 the state of Alabama has sent a person to death row and gotten it wrong. One of those exonerees, Anthony Ray Hinton, spent almost 30 years on Alabama’s death row before his volunteer lawyers were able to show that the government relied on flawed evidence – that he was innocent. Mr. Hinton’s case shows that it can take years to uncover evidence of innocence. Despite this knowledge, last week the Alabama legislature voted to “streamline” Alabama’s death penalty process. As Mr. Hinton wrote last month, had SB 187 been in place while he sat on death row, he would likely have been executed despite his innocence.

Regardless of where each of us stand on the death penalty, opposition to this legislation should be universal. In the United States, the importance of ensuring a fair and accurate death penalty process should be non-negotiable. Unfortunately, Alabama legislators disagreed.

Proponents of this legislation, including Alabama’s new Attorney General, are using one of the oldest tricks in the book to gain support . . . fear. In  a recent op ed by Attorney General Marshall, he began by retelling the gruesome facts surrounding a 37 year-old murder. In General Marshall’s death penalty narrative, the government always convicts the right person. It’s a perfect justice system (found in the fiction aisle). According to the Attorney General’s logic, if the facts are gruesome then justice must be swift, regardless of those pesky innocence issue.

In reality, SB 187 – the so-called “Fair Justice Act” – would:

  1. Undermine the ability of post-conviction counsel to fully defend their client by limiting their ability to conduct a thorough investigation, thus increasing the likelihood that Alabama would execute an innocent person (e.g. under this bill the direct and post-conviction appeals must occur at the same time, making it impossible for the post conviction counsel to properly investigate whether the direct appeal counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel); and;
  2. Fail to ensure the appointment of qualified counsel at the post-conviction stage, thus compounding the issues surrounding ineffective assistance of counsel that already plague the trial and direct appeal stages.

While the facts surrounding a murder may be gruesome, they are reiterated to distract us – to make us forget what the legislation before us would actually do, which is to prioritize rushing to an execution over ensuring the accuracy of the conviction. The impact of SB 187 is clear – it would make it more difficult for an innocent person to prove their innocence. And, as Jennifer Thompson from Healing Justice pointed out, when an innocent person sits in prison, the actual guilty person remains free to commit additional crimes.

We’re not the only one to raise a red flag around this legislation – here’s a snippet of the widespread opposition to SB 187:

  • Linda Klein, President, American Bar Association – “The American Bar Association takes no position for or against the death penalty itself, but our members – who include prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges – have long been committed to ensuring that capital punishment is fair, unbiased, and accurate. Our expertise provides us with a unique perspective regarding the likely pitfalls and unintended consequences of this legislation.”
  • Anthony Ray Hinton, Death Row Survivor – “I spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row for a crime I did not commit. If proposed changes to Alabama’s postconviction procedures under consideration by the state legislature had been enacted, I would have been executed despite my innocence.”
  • Jennifer Thompson, Founder, Healing Justice – “By prioritizing speed of the death penalty process over accuracy, SB 187 will not only place unnecessary pain on victims and survivors but also undermine the safety of others. Every day an innocent person sits in prison, the guilty person is free to commit additional crimes.”
  • Montgomery Advertiser Editorial Board – “Alabama legislators this past week wrongly approved a bill that shortens the appeal process for people convicted of a capital crime and facing an execution. Too much is at stake to take decisions of execution lightly. Mainly, it’s someone’s life and when the state makes the choice to kill a person, we are all responsible for that death.”
  • Ronald Sullivan Jr., Professor, Harvard Law School  – “The deceitfully named bill (it is neither fair nor just) would shorten the time for appeals and reduce already inadequate resources that death row prisoners have when appealing their convictions. Alabama has clearly put its head in the sand and is ignoring its own disgraceful experience with wrongful convictions and the death penalty, as well as current recommendations from other states.”
  • Lisa Borden, Attorney in Birmingham – “While this may sound like a good plan to those unfamiliar with the process, the proposal is neither fair nor just, and will only increase the already substantial likelihood that Alabama will execute a wrongfully convicted person.”
  • Stephen Cooper, Former Assistant Public Defender in Alabama – “Conscientious Alabamians concerned that, like Ray Hinton, freed after a hellacious 30 years on Alabama’s death row proclaiming his innocence, additional innocents might be unjustly thrust towards terrible and inhumane deaths – without an adequate chance to prove their innocence and/or that their constitutional rights were violated – you need to speak up. You need to speak up now!”

The awesome power of the government to kill in our name must be based on a fair and accurate process. SB 187 would do the opposite. We urge Governor Ivey to veto this legislation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montgomery, AL – Alabama Appleseed today applauded the Alabama Senate’s vote to “ban the box” (SB 200) on state employment applications.

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

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

“This legislation would help make our communities safer,” said Knaack. “Recidivism rates are reduced when individuals are able to successfully reenter their communities. By removing the criminal background box from state employment applications, individuals seeking state employment have an honest shot at securing a job. It’s a win-win – it provides people with a second chance to make an honest living and helps make our communities safer.”

SB 200 now moves to the House.

For additional information regarding SB 200, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.