By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

Birmingham, Ala. — A little more justice slowly made its way into Alabama this week.

Roberto Cruz, a 71-year-old man who had been sentenced to die in prison for a case involving marijuana – that’s right, only marijuana – was resentenced to time served and will soon be released from Donaldson prison.

Mr. Cruz’s odyssey through the Alabama court system contains so many remarkable elements it’s hard to know where to start. In 2003, he was charged with drug trafficking when the vehicle he was a passenger in was pulled over in Warrior and police found 25 pounds of marijuana in the trunk.  The driver received a 3-year split sentence and was deported.  Mr. Cruz was sentenced to Life Without Parole.

Roberto Cruz was ensnared in a system that has some of the country’s harshest sentences and lowest weight thresholds for marijuana offenses, Jefferson County Judge Stephen Wallace found, when he resentenced Mr. Cruz to time served.

The State’s primary evidence, according to Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace’s order: “[C]ircumstantial evidence suggesting that since the defendant was a passenger in the vehicle and marijuana has a strong odor, then he must have known about the drugs.”

At trial in 2005, Mr. Cruz’s attorney offered no mitigating evidence nor objection to the State’s use of prior convictions from 1985 to enhance his sentence under the Habitual Felony Offender Act. It took almost 16 years for the Alabama justice system to correct this error. Turns out, the State was not permitted to use those old convictions, all of which were drug crimes stemming from a single incident in Georgia.  Well-established Alabama case law excludes drug convictions prior to 1987 for use in HFOA sentencing because drug crimes had their own recidivist statute until then. But no one in Judge Gloria Bahakel’s Jefferson County courtroom 15 years ago could be bothered to point that out.

The story of how this error got corrected speaks volumes about the frailties in Alabama’s justice system and the harm done to defendants without access to money. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.  Incarcerated and without the benefit of counsel, Mr. Cruz filed post-conviction petitions that went nowhere. Then investigators with the Southern Poverty Law Center discovered his case while researching marijuana trafficking cases. They put Mr. Cruz’s plight on the radar of Jefferson County Public Defender Adam Danneman, who vigorously took on the case.

Judge Wallace’s order, most importantly, provides immediate release to a 71-year-old man who has no business at Donaldson prison. But it goes further in pointing out the “disturbing” reality that Alabama is still sending people to prison forever for marijuana, a substance legal in 11 states, and decriminalized in 16 more. “Commercial distribution of cannabis is allowed in all jurisdictions where it has been legalized, except for Vermont and the District of Columbia,” he wrote.  Even in the surrounding southern states of Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee, Alabama’s weight threshold for a trafficking conviction – greater than 2.2 pounds – is way out of line.

“Judge Wallace’s order hits the nail on the head. We have the lowest thresholds and the harshest punishments in the country for marijuana in this state,” Mr. Danneman told me. “Regardless of how you feel about the legalization/decriminalization of weed, 15 plus years in prison is a shockingly harsh punishment. I’m glad we were able to do something about it.”

Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on Alabama’s harsh marijuana laws in our report, Alabama’s War on Marijuana: Accessing the Fiscal and Human Toll of Criminalization. We found that marijuana enforcement costs Alabama taxpayers $22 million per year, a cost worth examining given the enormous state budget shortfalls anticipated by the COVID-related economic downturn and court closures.

The human costs are much worse.

In leaving prison as an older person once sentenced to die there, Mr. Cruz is in good company.  Within the last year, 72-year-old Geneva Cooley and 58-year-old Alvin Kennard have walked free, in large part because of Jefferson County judges and prosecutors who were unafraid to take a second look at how the mistakes of our past are wasting lives and hurting people.  Like Mr. Cruz, Ms. Cooley’s LWOP sentence was for drug trafficking.

Mr. Kennard at his Bessemer home a few months after his release from prison. Photo by Bernard Troncale

Mr. Kennard was my client and I still see him on a regular basis. Within 6 weeks of release, he secured a job at a car dealership. He talks about going to work like it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Work, family, and church are his priorities.  In fact, Mr. Kennard and Bessemer District Attorney Lynniece Washington attend the same church. And she is fine with that, she once told me. After all, she saw no purpose in opposing Mr. Kennard’s resentencing. He had served 36 years for a $50 robbery.

But there are so many more like them. According to data from the Alabama Sentencing Commission that Judge Wallace included in his order, 22 people in Alabama are serving sentences of Life Without Parole for drug convictions, 255 for robbery – all crimes that require no physical injury for a conviction.  But under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, that does not matter.

More than 100 of these people are over 60 years old. As COVID-19 spreads through the Alabama Department of Corrections, with now 25 confirmed cases among staff and incarcerated people, the potential consequences of these sentencing decisions become more fraught.

We celebrate with Roberto Cruz. And still we search for the ways Alabama’s criminal punishment system will somehow provide justice to the many others like him.

For a full account of Mr. Cruz’s case, please read Kathryn Casteel’s detailed report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — When police pulled Reunca Lewis over near downtown Montgomery on April 17, the 23-year-old Montgomery resident was baffled. Lewis’s car had been stolen and then involved in a hit-and-run, and she had spent most of the day with police downtown, dealing with the aftermath. Now, the police officer who pulled her over was asking why her new vehicle didn’t have tags.

She showed him her registration and proof of insurance and explained she couldn’t get tags because the office that issues them is closed due to Covid-19. The officer issued a warning, then excused himself and called dispatch.

Suddenly, three more police vehicles swarmed up and parked behind her car. The officer re-approached, told her to exit the vehicle, and arrested her for having outstanding warrants because she had missed a March hearing regarding unpaid traffic tickets. Lewis’ sister-in-law, 20, who happened to be in the car with her, was arrested for the same reason. In the back of the car, Lewis’s six-year-old son wept in fear while Lewis’ mother rushed across town to pick up the car and take the child home. 

Lewis, who has three other children at home including medically fragile 11-month-old twins, wept too.

The officer took Lewis and her sister-in-law to Montgomery City Jail, where they spent three nights locked in a tiny cell with two other women, one of whom was coughing and begging for medical attention.

All of the women were terrified. One was there in connection with an altercation with a neighbor, but, said Lewis, the majority of them there in connection with unpaid traffic tickets.

On a normal Friday, that wouldn’t be surprising. Like all municipal jails in Alabama, Montgomery’s city jail holds people arrested for allegedly violating municipal ordinances or committing misdemeanors. Many people are held in jail after missing hearings in connection with unpaid traffic tickets – Lewis herself has spent time there twice before in connection with tickets she did not have money to pay. Most of the time, the city jail also holds a few dozen individuals awaiting trial in federal court, as well as a handful of people serving sentence of less than a year.

But Friday, April 17 was not a normal Friday. On that Friday, cases of Covid-19, the potentially fatal illness caused by the novel coronavirus, were spiking across the state of Alabama. With less than one percent of the population tested statewide, there were already 206 cases in Montgomery County alone, according to data published by the Alabama Department of Public Health. That same day, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced for the first time that Covid-19 was spreading through its inmate population, with three positive tests at two different facilities. And weeks earlier, the governor had granted municipalities like Montgomery permission to issue summonses instead of arresting people who, like Lewis and her sister-in-law, were accused of nonviolent offenses. According to the proclamation, the reason for this extraordinary action was “[b]ecause the conditions of jails inherently heighten the possibility of COVID-19 transmission.”

Despite these known risks, Lewis and her sister in law were taken to jail. There, she said, none of the women she was with had personal protective equipment like gloves or face masks. There was no hand sanitizer or hot water. The inmates who gave her her jumper, mat, and other supplies when she was booked were without supplies, as were the inmates who worked in the kitchen. She reports that officers checked inmates’ temperatures before booking them in, but that while she was there, a male inmate arrived with a fever and was booked in anyway. Corrections officers made some effort to separate new arrivals from inmates who had been in for a while, but took no meaningful steps to protect the new arrivals from each other, Lewis reported.

When Lewis finally got before a municipal judge on Monday via videoconference, he told her a new date would be set, but declined to provide her with a clearance letter to get her license back after it was suspended for failing to appear in court. Until it is returned to her, Lewis, who is at heightened risk of being pulled over until state offices reopen and she is able to get a tag for her vehicle, risks being ticketed again for driving with a suspended license.

As an African-American woman, she is also at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19: In Alabama, nearly 58 percent of cases have been women and nearly 38 percent have been African American, even though the population overall is about 50 percent female and 27 percent African American.

Lewis is aware of these risks, and she is terrified. “Are our lives or tickets more important to them? Like, this is a fatal virus,” she said. “People are dying. They had us in there for tickets.”

Update: This post was updated on April 30, 2020 to reflect new facts provided by the City of Montgomery regarding the date of the hearing Ms. Lewis missed.

 

The following report is part of Appleseed’s collaboration with the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program and also appears on the Aspen Institute blog.


For many individuals and households, a $200 traffic ticket can devastate savings and finances. The Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households finds that 40% of Americans wouldn’t be able to pull together $400 in cash without borrowing money or selling possessions, highlighting the impact fines and fees can have on financial security.

Faced with the need to raise revenue, state and municipal criminal justice systems are increasingly turning to government fines and fees to make up budget shortfalls. The practice of imposing fines, fees, court costs, and other debts onto residents has created a “two-tiered justice system” that disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color – specifically African-American communities. Studies show that cities and communities with large African-American populations receive significantly more revenue from fines and exhibit harsher collection tactics than those without similar demographics.

In Alabama, thousands are trying to balance the costs of fines with other expenses and needs. A survey by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice found that for those with outstanding court debts:

  • More than 80% cut back on basic needs like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support just to pay down their debt
  • Almost 40% committed a crime to pay off their debt
  • 44% used payday or title loans to pay off their debt
  • Almost 50% shared that they thought they would never be able to pay off their debt

The penalties of an offense vary dramatically from location to location. In some jurisdictions, the consequence of not being able to pay a court fine or fee can be additional late fees – in other jurisdictions, jail time.

Appleseed and the Aspen Institute convened advocates, the legal community, government leaders, law enforcement, and directly impacted people for a convening on solutions to the fines and fees debt trap.

UAB Professor Emeritus Foster Cook and Jefferson County Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam shared strategies for addressing the harm of fines and fees on low-income Alabamians during an event in October.

What is unfolding in Alabama is not unique to the state. Fines and fees are distressing the financial lives of families across the country. In North Carolina, over one million people have suspended drivers licenses for either a failure to pay traffic fines and fees or failure to appear in court. Forty-three states use driver’s licenses suspensions as punishment for failure to pay.

Suspending a driver’s license can further exacerbate people’s inability to pay.  In rural communities, driving might be the only means to get to work and generate the income required to repay debts.  When faced with the choice of driving on a suspended license or losing one’s job, how do we blame those who do drive? Often, a suspended driver’s license may not deter people from driving due to the importance of work to family income. However, driving without a license puts many at risk for further punishment. In NC, for example, driving without a license is a Class 3 misdemeanor.

recent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division found that the conditions of men’s prisons in Alabama is in violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, which protects people from excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishment. The investigation has created state-wide urgency around the need to develop systemic solutions to instigate comprehensive criminal justice reform. Local stakeholders – government officials, employers, community leaders – are starting to pay attention and designing solutions to end this negative cycle. Restructuring court fines and fees is a necessary first step.

In October 2019, Alabama Appleseed, in partnership with the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program (Aspen FSP), convened a cross-sector group of local leaders to discuss and identify practical, promising solutions. Experts representing workforce development, district attorney’s offices, municipal and state government, the bar, and the judiciary, workshopped strategies for implementing local and state-wide solutions centered on three main goals: curtailing driver’s license suspensions, streamlining municipal court practices and policies, and strengthening data collection.

Alabama Appleseed and Aspen FSP have compiled a list of key recommendations to reduce the negative impacts of fines and fees on households and communities across the country.

  • Reimagine state funding

In Alabama, fines and fees serve as a hidden tax disproportionately borne by poor people and people of color to supplement the state’s low tax rates. The money collected is largely funneled into the state’s General Fund, government agencies, county and municipal funds, and used to finance pet projects. States should identify more equitable ways to fund essential functions and stop forcing the courts to serve as revenue collectors.

  • Share data between jurisdictions

Many Alabamians owe fines and fees in multiple jurisdictions, but when judges are assessing ability to pay and setting payment plans, they typically only know what the individual owes in their own court. As a result, some people are on payment plans of $25 or $50 in multiple jurisdictions. Better data collection and information-sharing between jurisdictions could prevent this type of unintentional burden and help judges more realistically assess the circumstances of the people who come before them. People are more likely to keep up with payment plans when those plans are reasonable, so better coordination may improve compliance as well.

  • Evaluate the broad impact on community

Individuals are not the only ones to suffer from burdensome court debt: the state pays too. When people lose their driver’s licenses, they can’t work. In an era of record low unemployment and a tight labor market, that means jobs cannot be filled despite the existence of eager workers. Everyone benefits from common-sense reforms like ending the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid debt, and employers, as much as anyone, should be part of the conversation about how debt reduction can improve prosperity.

  • Include law enforcement in policy conversations

No aspiring police officer dreams of taking someone into custody because the person fell behind on their traffic tickets. People become law enforcement agents because they care about their communities and want to keep them safe—and since they are the ones in communities, inviting law enforcement into conversations about policy reform can improve public safety outcomes for everyone.

  • Learn about what’s worked in other states
    Innovation is happening. In North Carolina, the Administrative Office of Courts has been at the forefront of efforts to end the practice of forcing judges to be debt collectors. In California, the city of San Francisco eliminated local “user” fees that charged individuals for being processed through the justice system. Although not every policy can be adopted without considering local differences, smart solutions come from everywhere.

Alabama Appleseed and Aspen FSP are committed to learning more about how to best develop and implement solutions that address the harmful impacts of fines and fees. As our organizations engage in this effort, we will continue to broadcast the best and intend to continue to share our findings. Solving this issue requires cross-sector collaboration and learning.  We hope the takeaways outlined above provide a roadmap for those beginning to do this work and look forward to engaging with all dedicated to ensuring the lives of individuals and families are not derailed by government fines and fees.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder

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

At the statehouse, we netted three big legislative wins:

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

 Appleseed staff with Brewer Torbert honoree Bryan Stevenson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

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

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

We don’t know their names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.