My name is Eddie Burkhalter and I’m excited to join Alabama Appleseed as a researcher. I’ve long been an admirer of the work done here, and I’m humbled to be a part of this team.

I grew up in Georgia, and lived in the Kennesaw and Marietta area for most of my time there. I moved to Alabama in 2001 and started college later in life, graduating from Jacksonville State University with a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies.

While in college I took an interest in writing, and eventually landed a job at a local weekly newspaper. I quickly fell in love with journalism, and worked my way up to the company’s daily, The Anniston Star, where I spent almost a decade covering nearly every beat, from school boards and county commissions, to homicides, the trials that ensued and the deadly tornadoes that too often tear homes and lives apart. The job connected me to my community in ways that no other job had, and it also meant that I was responsible to that community.

Over the 13 years I spent reporting, later at Alabama Political Reporter, where I covered state politics, COVID-19 and Alabama’s criminal justice system, I strove to get the best information to the public so that people could make better choices. I always aimed to be transparent and accountable to my readers, and tried daily to hold the powerful to account.

It was during my time at Alabama Political Reporter that I took an interest in Alabama’s broken prisons, and what state officials were doing, and weren’t, to address them. I spoke to families who’d lost loved ones to violence and drugs inside our prisons. I poured over records and tried to bring transparency to a system that fought it. When state officials revived a plan to build new prisons, I worked to learn more than was being told.

When COVID hit, it was clear that Alabama’s overpopulated prisons, where many people sleep in dorms an arm’s length from others, would get hit hard, and they were. I covered the death of Colony Wilson, who collapsed in a stairwell at the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center and died while staff delayed giving her aid. She was never tested for COVID, despite having symptoms. 

I also looked closely at Alabama’s harsh sentencing laws, including the state’s Habitual Felony offender Act, which fills the state’s overpopulated prisons and falls hardest on people of color.

In covering prisons, I found the work being done at Alabama Appleseed, which successfully freed six men who would otherwise have died in prison, sentenced under the Habitual Felony Offender Act. Appleseed’s mission of fighting economic injustice, mass incarceration and its work to hold the government accountable are near to my heart, so when the chance came for me to join Appleseed as a researcher, I jumped at it.

I look forward to working with my new colleagues as we all work to positively impact the lives of people who are too often underserved and overlooked in our state. 

I’m Justin McCleskey and I’m excited to start my internship with Alabama Appleseed over the summer! I completed my bachelors degree in political science at the University of Alabama and am in my second year as a master’s student in public administration.

As a first generation college student, I have to admit I stumbled into academia rather naively. I knew that I wanted to use my education to help others, but my interests seemed extremely broad at the time. Among my values, economic and legal reform began to reach the forefront, but I was still discovering how I could meaningfully contribute through debate, student government, and other areas of campus involvement.

In my master’s classes, I developed an affinity for public budgeting and data analysis, seeing it as a route to create solid arguments for effective reform. Along the way, I began watching a new student group, Alabama Students Against Prisons (ASAP), from afar. I was drawn in by their protests urging Regions Bank to divest funding from CoreCivic’s three new prison initiatives, but their strategies resonated deeply with me.

Using economic and legal approaches, ASAP established common-sense arguments against the creation of new prisons while recognizing a need for rehabilitation and changing laws to address overpopulation. Their success in blocking funding revealed a major route to effective change in Alabama; rational policy approaches precede political messaging.

Learning how my skills and interests intersect with Alabama’s criminal justice struggles, I saw a route to make this state a home for everyone. I’ll be using my time at Alabama Appleseed to research the correlation between Alabama’s aging prison populations and growing expenditures to find a solution. I hope to learn from the communities I work with while gaining professional insight that I can use to make Alabama a more welcoming environment for all!

Ten years ago, I interviewed for a college scholarship in front of a large panel of interviewers. I intended to enter college with the goal of becoming a criminal defense attorney. One of the interviewers asked me, “How could you ever defend someone who was guilty?”

Reader, I wish I could tell you I had a perfectly prepared answer. Something rooted in the U.S. Constitution about due process and the right to counsel. Maybe something about how our legal system depends upon equitable representation and access to justice. But at the time, I stumbled. I let out a string of “um”s and “uh”s until I blurted out an answer of which I can’t remember the details but that I’m sure contained all the legal buzzwords 18-year-old me knew at the time: defendant, justice, law. Needless to say, I did not win the scholarship.

Now, a decade later, after changing my college major no fewer than four times, jumping from careers in editing, writing, and publishing to career services to theatre, moving from my born-and-raised home in Cullman, Alabama, to St. Louis, Missouri, to Chicago, Illinois, to Louisville, Kentucky to Tuscaloosa, I finally have an answer. And that answer is, that question asks the wrong question.

One of my mentors at Alabama Law, where I am currently a 3L, put it this way: We always ask, “How could you defend someone who is guilty?” and never “How could you prosecute someone who is innocent?” That is, the language we use is important, as the words we use—or don’t use—drive how the story is told.

That emphasis on storytelling, fueled by my aforementioned forays into writing, publishing, and theatre, drives me as a law student and legal advocate. The language we use and the questions we ask when we talk about the criminal legal system allow us to detach justice-involved individuals from the whole of their humanity—their personal narratives, who they are outside of what they’ve done. As such, I believe criminal justice reform requires us to change the way we talk about criminal justice. If we ask the same old questions, we find only the same old answers. Reforming our criminal legal system means asking new questions.

I am excited to spend my summer as a legal intern with Alabama Appleseed because they understand what it means to ask new questions and tell new stories. Appleseed’s focus on justice-involved individuals as the tellers of their own stories guides every aspect of their work. I am grateful to learn from Appleseed as they write a new chapter in Alabama’s criminal justice narrative.

Meghan McLeroy is a part of the Justice John Paul Stevens Foundation Public Interest Fellowship Program which provides grants to enable law students to work in public interest summer law positions.

My Name is Frederick M. Spight Jr. and I am elated to be joining Alabama Appleseed as the new Policy Director. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to create broad reaching changes and reforms that positively affect the most vulnerable in the state of Alabama. My approach to the work is informed by a myriad of experiences as an attorney, educator, parent and life-long Southerner.

I am a native of Marietta, GA and received my undergraduate degree in history with a concentration in philosophy from Morehouse College. As a history major we were always told (particularly by those outside of the field) that you either go into teaching or law. I was keen on neither, but in a twist of irony I would go on to experience both. 

While working in a packing plant during my college years I came to the realization that law can be a tool to help the most marginalized and voiceless in our society. It was here that I decided to go into the legal profession which took me to Winston-Salem, NC. 

I graduated from Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, NC. While there I interned abroad at a Hungarian NGO, studied human and civil rights law in Austria, worked with Legal-Aid of North Carolina and the Community Law and Business Clinic while also serving as an Executive Editor of the Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy. Not to mention, I met my lovely wife while there. My constant goal was to find the best, and most effective method of advocacy that could bring broad-reaching and lifelong change to lower income people and the communities in which they live.

Eventually, my perspective changed and this led me into education where I followed the charge of Frederick Douglass who said, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” My goal in education was to reach a younger generation of students and to inspire them the way I had been inspired at Morehouse College. With the intended effect of instilling with them the knowledge to avoid many of the traps that I had seen from low-income clients at my time in Legal Services organizations. One of my fondest memories came from a student who many would describe as “troubled”. He was severely behind on virtually every metric and had significant disciplinary issues. In trying to get him to do his work I found that the key was not to let this student have any down time. I made sure to always give him more work and even would sneak in more advanced work for the challenge. One day he came to my desk and said:  “You know, Mr. Spight, all of these subjects are interconnected and build off of each other.” He then went on to explain the interplay between language arts, social studies, math and the sciences and how the skills from one directly and indirectly translate to others. I told him that he has grasped what many adults who are making educational policy have failed to understand and maybe he should be the one at the table.  I’m always grateful for this experience and I probably learned just as much from my students as they learned from me.

After teaching, I came back into the legal profession and to the state of Alabama via the John Lewis Fellowship at Legal Services Alabama. I focused on public benefits law, consumer issues and education law. I was able to successfully represent several clients in unemployment hearings before the Alabama Department of Labor wherein they received over $10,000 in back pay. Furthermore, I was able to use Mckinney-Vento, a federal act that allows homeless children to stay at their school of origin regardless of the district in which they might currently be living, to keep two cousins in a school after one of their mothers died and the other’s father was missing. They were both being raised by their older sister/aunt who was also a single mom of two young children at 21. 

Also, I was able to create the JLF Community Growth Project wherein we focused on helping small businesses, nonprofits and other community centered organizations with their basic legal needs. To support the work I supervised a community asset mapping project conducted by several law students and also did research surrounding payday lending. This was a multipart project in that it aimed to create specific information that could be used to directly target services into communities with the highest concentrations of poverty while also identifying anchor institutions in these communities for outreach and relationship building in the future. Payday lending became an ancillary project as I realized that it wasn’t enough to help foster economic growth in low-income communities without addressing sources of resource extraction, such as payday lenders, from these same communities. 

After the Fellowship I transitioned to the position of Court Debt Project Attorney where I focused on Fines and Fees work statewide. In this position, I was able to get an intimate look at oftentimes overlooked issues confronting justice-involved people. Practicing state wide allowed me to witness first hand the diversity of this great state. It also showed me how, regardless of perception or political affiliation, there are many actors who seek to reform the criminal justice system, while also battling with entrenched forces that would prefer it to stay the same. Once again, I saw this as an opportunity to address not only the economic strain on my clients, but also the strain it put on their families and communities in which they lived. I was able to get thousands of dollars of court debt remitted throughout the state. During this period I also became more aware of Appleseed’s initiatives as they focused on a lot of the issues I was focused on from a policy perspective, whereas my role brought me into courtrooms throughout the state.

As I reflected on these experiences, one of the constant forces that negatively impacts low income individuals is unfavorable legislation. For instance, as a Fines and Fees attorney the main mechanism by which I aimed to remit or reduce an individual’s court debt is based on judicial discretion. This means that regardless of an individual’s ability or likelihood of being able to pay their debt to the court, the decision to remit is largely and oftentimes based on other considerations such as an individual judge’s subscription to one theory on crime and punishment over another. One of the more painful situations I experienced was a woman who served over 10 years in prison and has been unable to find a steady job since her release. Even still, she works a variety of odd jobs to support herself. She pays what little money she can to the court, even though she frequently has a household deficit in relation to her income. To this day the court still compels her to come to court, under threat of issuing a warrant (which will most likely result in her arrest) as it tries to increase her monthly payment arrangement. 

In joining Alabama Appleseed, as the new Policy Director, it is my goal to let my experiences influence good policy initiatives that will positively impact the citizens in the state of Alabama.

My name is Mercedes Davis, and it is with so much gratitude that I announce my internship with Alabama Appleseed this summer. I am a rising 2L at Cumberland School of Law and hold a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 

My interest in criminal justice reform, specifically prison reform, began in the middle of my undergrad journey when I learned about Kalief Browder. In 2010, a 16-year-old Kalief was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack containing certain valuables. At the time of his arrest, a judge set his bail to $3,000 and with his family not able to afford his $900 bond, Browder was sent off to Rikers Island. Two and a half months after entering Rikers, Browder appeared in front of a judge who consequently remanded him without bail because his arrest was a violation of his probation. Even if his family could have raised the money for his release, this judgment made bail no longer an option, and he was held at Rikers Island for three years without a trial. A backlog in the Bronx DA’s Office, combined with continuance upon continuance, amounted to Browder appearing before eight judges and nearly 1,000 days passing—more than 700 of those days in solitary confinement. Browder experienced violence at the hands of inmates and officers alike, and he attempted suicide numerous times while in prison.

On May 29, 2013, a judge freed Browder in anticipation of dismissal of the outstanding charges. Once released, he passed the GED exam and enrolled in Bronx Community College thereafter. Yet the horrors of solitary confinement and carceral violence Browder experienced at Rikers persisted, and he was admitted to a psychiatric ward three times after his release. On June 6, 2015, Browder died by suicide. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cited Mr. Browder’s experience in the 2015 Supreme Court decision Davis v. Ayala as an indicator of a necessary “consideration of the many issues solitary confinement presents.”  

Learning about Kalief Browder’s experience with the criminal justice system forever changed my view of the American justice system. The horrors he faced that ultimately led to his death, opened my eyes to the ugly truth about criminal justice—how the system perpetuates trauma for those intertwined in the legal system as well as the greater community rather than resolve and rehabilitate. For me, his story brought to light the deficiencies in mental health resources necessary for successful reintegration and the reality that many of our prisons operate as breeding grounds for ongoing, generational trauma. 

As I began to delve into the world of prison reform, I couldn’t help but discover the horrific state of Alabama’s prison system. The issues that often make national headlines are in my own backyard. Learning about the DOJ’s ongoing investigation into Alabama’s prisons and mental health conditions litigation provided insight into the living conditions incarcerated individuals in Alabama are subjected to. The penal system that we have in place, in simple terms, is a big bully; and the bullied are the disenfranchised, the poor, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). The more I learn, the greater my interest becomes in addressing criminal justice issues and human rights violations right here in Alabama.

Since becoming interested in criminal justice reform, I have volunteered with Aid to Inmate Mothers where I saw firsthand how maintaining and strengthening family connections can produce positive societal outcomes, such as reduced recidivism and healthy child development. I was also able to observe how the other side of the legal system worked during an internship with DA Lynneice Washington. I sat in on trials, learned about resources that help Jefferson County youth entering foster care, and researched programs with the potential to combat overcrowding in our jails and prisons for misdemeanors. Those experiences combined with my education in Criminal Justice and Sociology, have allowed me to better understand the intersectionality of the harmed and the harm inflicted by our criminal justice. I am eager for the opportunity I have at Appleseed to gain further understanding. 

My goal for this summer is to learn as much as I can from Alabama Appleseed on how to fight for this state—working towards a better Alabama and protecting the Alabamians who need it most.

by Catherine Alexander-Wright, MSW, LICSW, Alabama Appleseed Social Worker

Appleseed client Joe Bennett with Judy Allen from the United Way of Central Alabama

April 15 along with its not-so-much-recognized but equally-dreaded friend April 18 can be, let’s be honest, a negative experience ranging from nuisance to financial hardship. Regardless of one’s thoughts, opinions, or feelings about taxes, I doubt that tax day is anyone’s favorite date other than – and with my express apologies to – those with birthdays and anniversaries on this date! What if, however, we looked at taxes differently? Imagine you had not been able to work in 2021, meaning you could neither earn an income nor pay taxes. Imagine viewing today as one of the days of the year to exercise one’s participation in the democratic process inextricably linked to election day. 

That’s what paying taxes means to Appleseed’s Second Chance clients. For these men, now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, the consequences of criminal convictions decades ago, included forfeiting the freedom to earn a living, contribute to the economy, and pay taxes. Taxes mean freedom, a welcome consequence of their new lives of meaning and productivity. 

Joe Bennett is one such client. In 1997, Joe was given two life-without-parole (“LWOP”) sentences for two counts of robbery stemming from a single incident at a barbecue restaurant. Joe is one of the many people in Alabama who had been condemned to die in prison for an offense without physical injury, enhanced by minor prior offenses under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA). Due to changes in that law in the 1990s and sentencing reforms in 2015, three of the four prior offenses used to enhance Joe’s sentence under the HFOA could not be used for enhancement purposes today. If sentenced today, Joe would be ineligible for a sentence of life imprisonment without parole; instead, he likely would receive a split sentence with two years prison time and seven years on probation: two years versus a lifetime. 

Upon Joe’s release on September 21, 2021, he became employed at a tree service, where he is a dedicated and trusted employee. In early 2022, Joe acknowledged that he needed to file income tax returns for 2021, the first he has been able to file in decades. I used to experience anxiety or dread for my clients during tax time. So many well-meaning friends and family members, in addition to pop-up tax shops with a variety of discernable intentions, appear this time of year. The last thing I wanted our clients to experience is a tax anomaly or worse, be taken advantage of, while they were attempting to re-establish themselves personally and professionally. Not to mention that a few of our clients experienced identity theft while incarcerated, specific issues of which needed to be addressed by a trained tax preparer.

Several decades of social work have made calling the United Way of Central Alabama, specifically Judy Allen with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, a reflex. As I explained to Judy what Joe and other Appleseed clients might face as they attempted to file their 2021 taxes, she already knew. She asked me some screening questions, explained specific tax nuances that might apply, and gave me a list to help our clients organize for their tax appointments. She made in-person appointments for those clients who needed them and made them during a time minimally impactful to their work schedules. On the day of the appointments, Judy took the time to explain why she was asking for each document and what each section of each tax form meant. Our clients felt secure in that they had done everything they needed to do to comply with federal law in a trustworthy setting that respected their dignity and privacy. With this assistance, United Way of Central Alabama has become one of many service providers across the Greater Birmingham area who have embraced our formerly incarcerated clients. We are so grateful!

Today does not have to be a nuisance; it can also be one of gratitude. Today, I am grateful for attorneys who persist, public servants who listen, and reconsideration of inequitable sentences. I am grateful for second chances. I am grateful for employers who give jobs to justice-involved individuals and to our clients who want to participate fully in a system that has not always been fully just with them. I am grateful to Judy Allen and the United Way of Central Alabama for providing services to all without judgment, and providing essential, responsible tax preparation services so that individuals don’t inadvertently end up with additional tax issues. And I am grateful for Appleseed’s clients, whose hope, determination, and tenacity inspire me every day.

By: Akiesha Anderson, Alabama Appleseed Policy Director

Last summer, when I traveled to Auburn to celebrate Senator Tom Whatley’s birthday, I had no idea what would be birthed as a result of that trip. 

On my drive from Montgomery to Auburn, I had no plans to run into Representative Jeremy Gray after Senator Whatley’s birthday party, nor for Representative Gray and I to end up chatting in depth about working together to put together and pass a bill that gives people leaving Alabama prisons a grace period of 180 days post-release before they are required to have to pay back court-imposed fines and fees. 

Just four days prior to that weekend’s road trip, my colleague and fellow attorney Alex LaGanke and I met to have a conversation about one of our then legislative priorities – ensuring that people leaving the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”) were given state-issued identification cards upon release (a project we are continuing to work on with partners including several state agencies). In her role directly representing incarcerated clients and helping to facilitate the release and successful reentry of men from ADOC custody, Alex had become my go-to subject matter expert on the needs of this population. While we had regular meetings prior to this date discussing potential legislation regarding identification cards, on this particular day my conversation with Alex began with a story that took me aback and ultimately, led to monumental change in the state of Alabama. 

As we chatted, Alex explained that one of our clients whom we had recently helped get released from prison and whom we were currently providing reentry support for, had recently shared a shocking story. According to Alex and our client, that morning our client who was staying in transitional housing had talked a fellow resident out of committing a crime of theft or robbery and possibly getting sent back to prison. At the time, the housemate was feeling desperate because of court fines and fees he owed but didn’t have the money to pay yet because he had just  been released from prison and was still trying to get on his feet. Daily, he was required to attend various job training and reentry programs while simultaneously being expected to already have a job and the funds to pay back his fines and fees. Not surprisingly, this impossible situation was clouding his judgment and ability to see an alternative path forward beyond returning to a life of crime. Plus he was so poor, he was hungry. Thankfully, our client was able to talk his housemate off the ledge that morning, and subsequently no crime was committed as a vehicle for paying back his court-imposed fines and fees. 

Prior to my talk with Alex, I failed to realize that in Alabama, people released from prison had to start paying fines and fees immediately (or almost immediately, such as within 30 days if you ran into a gracious judge) upon release from prison. Long story short, this illumination led to a conversation between Alex and me about changing that legislatively. Subsequently, that conversation led to my unplanned conspiracy with Representative Gray a few days later and our agreement to work together to create a “Grace Period Bill,” later known as HB95 (that was co-sponsored by House Minority Leader, Representative Anthony Daniels), and which the Governor has recently signed into law. 

In effect, HB95 gives people leaving prison a grace period of 180 days post-release before they will have to pay back court-imposed fines and fees. Although there are some exceptions to this rule (for example, we were unable to get the full Legislature to agree to this bill including a grace period for restitution), this policy is sorely needed in Alabama and other states. In fact, when working to draft this bill, the only state that I could find that had a similar law on the books was Oklahoma (which also has a 180-day grace period).

Given the rarity of this kind of law, it’s no surprise that it wasn’t an easy process to get the Alabama Legislature to immediately agree to this bill. In fact, after nearly two hours of intense floor debate, it barely passed out of the House of Representatives in mid-February, and at that point, a floor amendment to cut the grace period in half – down to 90 days – had passed, despite protest and dissent from the bill sponsor, Representative Gray, who urged fellow House members not to agree to that change. Thankfully, when the bill came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Bobby Singleton successfully passed – with bipartisan support – his own amendment changing its length back to 180 days. Subsequently, in the final hours of the 2022 legislative session, the bill with the Singleton amendment attached, restoring the grace period to its initial length, ultimately successfully passed out of the Senate and was agreed to by the House of Representatives. 

HB95 also accomplishes something else that will help both incarcerated people and their families, who have to provide monetary support so that loved ones in prisons will have enough to eat, basic hygiene items, and such “extras” as tennis shoes and stamps. Thanks to a provision added by Representative Penni McClammy, whose own brother was once incarcerated, the new law now prohibits the state from taking money from an incarcerated person’s prison account for court-ordered fines and fees. 

While the reality of people having to pay back court-imposed fines and fees so close to the time that they were released from prison was news to me prior to my talk with Alex, the desperate choices people make to pay back such fines and fees was not. In fact, Alabama Appleseed has done extensive research into the ways in which fines and fees undermine public safety and drive people to make tremendous sacrifices – like giving up basic necessities or skipping rent payments and risking eviction – and even have caused some people to commit crimes such as selling drugs, committing theft, or engaging in sex work. 

Research has shown that on average, more than 8,500 people are released from the ADOC’s custody each year. Upon release, most formerly incarcerated people receive almost no re-entry services from the state, such as basic housing assistance. Instead, individuals transitioning back into society face a blockade and there is virtually no reasonable pathway for re-entry without family support, particularly for those who reach their end of sentence (“EOS”). Unfortunately, for many people, that crucial family support is either nonexistent or couched in an environment that is not healthy for an individual hoping to not recidivate.

Not surprisingly, it also often takes individuals several months after leaving prison to obtain stability and get on their feet (e.g., securing housing, jobs, identification cards, transportation, etc.) before they are able to be productive citizens again. Individuals who have served their time and are trying to make a life change but have limited to no support and no financial resources, need basic necessities to have any chance for safety and stability. Below are just a few of the costs and barriers people face:

  • Immediate need for a state-issued ID to access basic social services, housing, jobs, and open a bank account. Accessing the social security card and birth certificate required for a state ID can take weeks. A state-issued ID is at least $36 and often costs more. Multiple laws have passed requiring ADOC to assist individuals leaving prison with IDs, but those laws are not being implemented.
  • Transportation to access various government offices in order to access IDs and to get to jobs.
  • Clothing, shoes, toiletries, and food for basic survival, job interviews. This costs on average $750 for the first month. $200 per month in food stamps is available to offset these costs but only if the application is approved.
  • Phone – in order to access employers, job interviews etc. it typically will cost at least $500 to obtain a phone and 6 months of service.
  • Housing – minimum of $500/monthly in transitional housing.
  • $40 monthly supervision fee, if on parole.

In addition to the aforementioned costs and barriers, as stated before, prior to Representative Gray’s bill, people were also expected to practically immediately begin paying back their legal financial obligations (“LFOs”) including court-imposed fines and fees. 

For many formerly incarcerated individuals, their LFOs range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, according to research, the median amount of court debt assessed with regard to felony and misdemeanor convictions in Alabama is $1,808 for a felony conviction and $646 for a misdemeanor conviction. In addition, Alabama Appleseed’s study of nearly 1,000 Alabamians with experience with court debt found that “the minimum amount owed by a justice-involved individual in [our] sample was $32. The maximum amount [wa]s $250,000. The median amount owed was $2,700 and the mean was $6,536.” Also, the “most common amount owed was $2,000.” Although “those amounts may seem small to some, a 2014 survey of Alabamians with a felony conviction found that survey participants had a median annual income of $8,000, suggesting that the average Alabamian with a felony conviction… faces court debt equal to more than a fifth of their annual income.” As a result, justice-involved individuals are often in difficult financial straits immediately and even months after their release.

HB95 was written in recognition of the fact that payment of court-ordered fines and fees is next to impossible when someone has yet to secure other basic necessities like a job, housing, and transportation. The obstacles faced when reentering society and seeking employment can already feel insurmountable for many formerly incarcerated men and women, yet that burden becomes even heavier when these individuals are expected to either immediately begin paying back their fines and fees or face additional financial or criminal penalties. 

The passage and signing of this bill is a momentous example of the kinds of meaningful criminal justice reform that can be achieved in Alabama. As only the second Southern state to pass such a bill, I encourage state leaders to continue to seek ways that we can be seen as innovative and smart on crime rather than trapped by the failed and self-defeating tough on crime policies of the past. 

About Alabama Appleseed: 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. As Alabama’s only research and advocacy organization focused solely on reforming Alabama’s criminal justice system, Alabama Appleseed conducts integrated culture and policy change campaigns to confront laws and policies that harm the poor and to remedy the root causes of poverty and injustice. Our campaigns use policy analysis, research and documentation, legislative action, public education, community organizing, pro bono engagement, coalition building, and litigation. Alabama Appleseed is a vibrant, growing organization that prides itself on creating strategic, evidence-based solutions to some of the most pressing problems in Alabama, and allowing the ingenuity of our staff to lead the way.

Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 17 Appleseed centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

Position Summary: Alabama Appleseed seeks a Policy Associate to aid in: developing and implementing campaign goals; building and maintaining relationships with state legislators, administration officials, and other key elected officials; drafting, monitoring, and developing support for state legislation; and working closely with allies and coalition  partners around shared initiatives. The Policy Associate will work alongside the Policy Director to promote Appleseed’s research and reports among decision makers and serve as one of Appleseed’s strategists and contacts with the Alabama Legislature. The Policy Associate will have a strong voice in developing organizational campaigns and tools and must have a clear understanding of the opportunities and challenges of social justice and civil rights advocacy in Alabama. The Policy Associate reports to the Policy Director, and works closely with Appleseed’s Research Director and Organizer. This is a full-time position based in Appleseed’s Montgomery office, and will require some statewide travel. Candidates based in Birmingham yet able to be in Montgomery during legislative sessions (typically February – May) may also be considered. 

Responsibilities:

  • Develop deep understanding of Appleseed’s research and policy goals and communicate Appleseed’s work persuasively to a variety of audiences;
  • Work with Policy Director to develop legislative priorities and strategies;
  • Research and analyze laws and policies affecting Alabama communities, conduct comparative state analyses as needed. Develop advocacy tools, including fact sheets, talking points, public education materials, position letters and policy briefs. Produce high-standard written products for internal and external audiences, based on original research and analysis; 
  • Work alongside Policy Director to represent Appleseed at the Alabama Legislature. Lobby full-time during legislative session and any special sessions including: track and analyze legislative proposals, prepare and deliver testimony and supporting material; 
  • Work with lawmakers to draft and pass legislation supporting Appleseed’s policy goals. Attend legislative committee meetings, monitor the progress of legislation, develop speakers to support legislation, and effectively communicate legislative developments with community members, coalition partners, and other allies;
  • Help develop and implement strategies to lobby the Alabama Legislature and other stakeholders to support bills and policies that advance Appleseed’s legislative priorities. Develop relationships with elected officials, both at the state and local level;
  • Conduct district visits with key legislators during the legislature’s off season;
  • Work with Organizer and Policy Director to build and grow diverse coalitions of other statewide and national organizations to support shared goals;
  • Speak publicly on behalf of Alabama Appleseed at community meetings, coalition events, and lobby days.;
  • Cultivate bi-partisan allies and partners in multiple sectors including state and local government, direct service, the legal community, faith groups, advocacy nonprofits, and national groups to promote Appleseed’s legislative and policy goals;
  • Work within the Appleseed network by attending network convenings and contributing to shared projects;

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • One or more years of experience highly preferred, especially around legislative and policy advocacy campaigns or governmental affairs;
  • Bachelor’s degree preferred;
  • J.D. or other advanced degree helpful but not required if suitable candidate has demonstrated, relevant work experience;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license – this position will involve extensive travel throughout Alabama;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Ability to multi-task effectively and occasionally embrace administrative duties;
  • Willingness to work long hours during the legislative session;
  • Willingness to travel throughout the state, as needed, when the legislature is not in session;
  • Strong research and writing skills; experience drafting legislation a plus;
  • Skilled in Excel, Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and Google Docs.

Salary and Benefits: This position offers a competitive non-profit salary range of $45,000 to $55,000, depending on experience, along with a benefits package including health insurance, generous paid leave, and 401(k) after one year; reimbursement of travel-related expenses.

To Apply: Please send a cover letter, resume, writing sample, and three references, to Alabama Appleseed’s Executive Director Carla Crowder, at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis and accepted until the position is filled. Please write “Policy Associate” in the subject line.

The injustices that we are fighting in Alabama today are directly connected to long histories of inequality and oppression in this state. As we build our team to fight for a better Alabama, we know that people who have historically been overlooked need to lead. For this reason, we welcome and strongly encourage applications from people of color, women, people with criminal histories, people from working class backgrounds, and LGBTQ people.

Alabama Appleseed values an inclusive culture and diverse workforce. Alabama Appleseed encourages applications from all qualified individuals without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, national origin, marital status, citizenship, disability, veteran status, and record of arrest or conviction.

Alabama Appleseed’s priorities for the 2022 legislative session are narrowly focused on sensible reforms and investments. Our priorities reinforce what so many Alabamians are beginning to understand: as a state, we pour too much money into prisons and punishment and fail to invest in policies and services that will make us all safer and more prosperous.

This session, help us pass the following three priorities: 

End drivers license suspensions for low-wealth Alabamians

Right now, nearly 170,000 Alabamians have their driver’s licenses suspended because they failed to pay traffic tickets or failed to appear in court. That’s 170,000 people who can’t easily hold down jobs, take care of themselves or their families, or otherwise go about their lives – not because they’re dangerous drivers, but because they owe the state money. At the same time, Alabama is facing a staggering labor shortage, with more than two jobs for every jobseeker. Something’s got to change.

This session, Appleseed will support bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) and Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Birmingham) that would sever the connection between unpaid traffic debt and driver’s license suspensions while ensuring accountability for individuals who receive traffic tickets and maintaining protections against dangerous drivers. Specifically, the legislation will end suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets and failure to appear at compliance hearings about payment plans, while also making plain that drivers who simply ignore tickets can have their licenses suspended and leaving in place the points system that governs suspensions for habitually reckless drivers.

Reform is urgently needed. Businesses are suffering for lack of workers, and Alabamians who lost their licenses due to debt are making desperate choices in the meantime. Our 2018 survey of Alabama drivers whose licenses were suspended due to unpaid traffic debt found that 89% had to choose between basic needs like food, utilities, or medicine and paying what they owed; 73% had to request charitable assistance they would not have otherwise needed; 48% took out high-interest payday loans; and 30% admitted to committing crimes like selling drugs or stealing to pay off their tickets.

Alabama drivers need licenses so they can get decent jobs and do what they need to do to care for themselves and their families. This bill aims to help them get back on the road.

Invest federal COVID-relief funds into prison re-entry and diversion programs

In Alabama, individuals transitioning back into society after serving time for a criminal offense face a blockade and there is virtually no reasonable pathway for re-entry without family support. Individuals who have served their time and are trying to make a life change, but have no financial resources, need basic necessities to have any chance for safety and stability.

The State of Alabama currently provides no re-entry housing support for the vast majority of people exiting from the Alabama Department of Corrections’ custody. In fiscal 2021, that number was 4,122.  Appleseed’s proposal seeks to provide bare minimum support to this population in order to provide stability during their first months outside of prison and increase public safety. 

The Legislature should approve $10 million in American Rescue Act (ARPA) funding for licensed, private, nonprofit providers of housing and re-entry services throughout the State. Housing could be provided using two models: the group home/halfway house setting and the community-based transitional home model.  For $10 million annually, approximately 2,000 returning individuals could be safety housed as they get back on their feet. Models in Georgia, Texas, and Michigan have been enormously successful.

Already lawmakers have devoted $400 million in ARPA funds to help build two, new mega prisons, a controversial decision that has been widely criticized. Lawmakers must decide this session how to spend another $580 million. A small fraction for re-entry housing would help address the desperation and homelessness that thousands of people who leave prison every year face.

On the front end, lawmakers should use this rare federal funding opportunity to improve and support programs such as drug courts and diversion that treat people arrested for minor, nonviolent drug crimes in communities rather than sending them to Alabama’s unconstitutional prisons.

As Appleseed found in our 2020 report, In Trouble, these programs can cost thousands of dollars, which makes them inaccessible for low-income people.  More than eight in 10 participants we surveyed gave up a necessity like food, rent, or medicine to pay for a diversion program. One in five had been turned down for a diversion program because they could not afford it. 

Provide a grace period for individuals returning from prison to pay fines and fees

Finally, Appleseed is working to provide greater opportunities for success to formerly incarcerated people through legislation that would grant people a six month “grace period” following release before they must begin paying back court fines and fees. 

People often leave prison with little more than a few dollars and a change of clothes. They have no identification, they have a felony conviction, plus housing challenges. It is hardly a formula for success. On top of these challenges, most justice-involved people have accumulated thousands of dollars in court fines and fees – sometimes for decades-old traffic tickets. They must begin paying immediately or face re-arrest. It’s an endless cycle that costs all Alabamians and makes no one safer. 

Representative Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika) will sponsor legislation that will grant justice-involved people a six-month “grace period” before they have to begin paying back fines and fees after being released from prison. It just makes sense.

Join Appleseed’s Action Network to keep updated on our priority issues and more this session. Thank you for standing with us to build a better Alabama! 

My name is Brenita Softley, and I am deeply honored to join Alabama Appleseed as a part-time extern. I am in awe of this organization’s mission to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians— which are reasons that I decided to attend law school.

My interest in the legal realm sparked with the death of Trayvon Martin. I knew that our system was unfair, but this realization hit differently when I noticed the criminal legal system telling someone that looked like me and was the same age as me that their life did not matter. I noticed that even when Black people were killed, they were always treated as the aggressor. Realizing this, I wanted to advocate for the most marginalized in society. Throughout my law school journey, I realized that criminal defense was the best way for me to do this. 

The summer following my first year of law school was historical for two reasons: our nation was fighting two pandemics at the same time—COVID 19 and racial injustice. Don’t get me wrong, racial injustice has always been a problem in our country…especially since the original sin of our country was slavery. However, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked a more modern nationwide movement. Inspired by their deaths, my classmate and I started a podcast entitled “Welcome to My America” where we discussed racial injustice and how to combat it. That summer, I expounded on this mission when I interned at the Tuscaloosa County Public Defenders’ Office. In my work there, I realized how our criminal legal system oppresses the poor. A lot of our clients were homeless or barely had enough income to sustain themselves. Yet, they were required to pay hundreds of dollars in court costs and fines. I also realized that many of our clients often resorted to crime out of necessity due to being impoverished. However, the law did not care. I made a vow to make sure that would change.

During my second year of law school, I interned with the Children’s Rights Clinic where I saw the school to prison pipeline play out. As an intern in the clinic, my job was to draft individualized education plans, ensure that my clients received appropriate educational services, and highlight mitigating arguments to the court. It was in my internship with The Southern Center for Human Rights that I realized just how important mitigation is. During my internship, I was assigned to two capital cases. Many of our clients had committed their crimes for  reasons such as PTSD, poverty, or the inability to understand right from wrong. What was most heartbreaking was that one of our clients was innocent. When I visited him in prison, I was amazed at how much we had in common. I didn’t expect us to have family from the same small town of Florence, Alabama. I didn’t expect him to have a daughter that was in the same sorority as me or who went to the same school that I did. I didn’t expect him to have the same smile and glow as my dad as he was telling me about his daughter’s accomplishments. I also didn’t expect him to tell me that his source of hope was waking up each day and seeing 14 bars since this reminds him that he woke up to see another day. This client was sent to death row because of systemic injustice and racial bias that permeates the criminal legal system in Alabama. These are issues that Alabama Appleseed confronts in its work. 

Each of these experiences gave me insight into the issues that plague our criminal legal system. During my final year of law school, I was able to use these various experiences in acting as a student attorney in the University of Alabama School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic. In the clinic, my classmates and I represented Tuscaloosa residents accused of crimes under the supervision of our professor.  I was able to participate in various plea negotiations, draft motions, and make oral arguments to the court. Fighting zealously for my clients solidified my interest in criminal justice reform since I realized just how imbalanced our criminal legal system is—in the words of Paul Butler, it is designed for poor people and minorities to lose.

As a lifelong resident of Alabama, I want our state to improve and have a just criminal legal system. A criminal legal system that does not perpetuate racial disparities in arrests or sentencing. One that does not hinder the rights of the accused. One that does not cause minorities to question whether police are there to kill them or protect and serve. And one that does not punish people for simply being poor. This is something that Alabama Appleseed fights for each day by examining laws and policies through a lens of poverty and racial injustice. I am honored to use my experiences to help them in this fight.