By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director

As Alabama struggles to contain Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus that has gripped the world’s attention since January, law enforcement officials and judges across the state have taken bold steps to prioritize public health over punishment by slowing arrests for low-level offenses and releasing from jails individuals who are not a danger to the community.

The results have been extraordinary. Between January and late April, at least 13 counties shrank their jail populations by more than a quarter, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Baldwin and Houston counties, both notorious for their tough-on-crime conservatism, each reduced their jail population by about a third. Alabama’s largest county, Jefferson, with a jail capacity of 1,200, dropped its population below 650.

These counties’ decisive action has likely saved lives. Nationally, prisons and jails have been hotspots for the virus’ spread. That’s certainly true in Tuscaloosa, which on May 21 acknowledged that 21 inmates and one employee at its jail had tested positive for the virus, even as the city overall saw a 35% increase in the number of cases.

Yet instead of responding by releasing low-level offenders from what could easily become a literal death trap, Tuscaloosa’s police chief has announced plans to round up and jail more people.              Though crime is down in the city, Chief Brent Blankley – who since his appointment in February has overseen roundups of low-level offenders including 116 misdemeanor arrests – announced  this week about a plan to “take our streets back.”

Among other things, he plans to increase traffic stops by buying tint meters. In Tuscaloosa, the crime of “Improper Window Tint” carries a penalty of $182. It also gives police an excuse to pull people over, often leading to additional financial penalties, vehicle searches, arrest, and incarceration for things such as unpaid traffic tickets or marijuana possession.

Blankley’s plan, dubbed “Operation Safe Streets,” is being rolled out as Tuscaloosa’s streets are stalked by a silent, invisible killer that has disproportionately haunted black lives in Alabama and across the country. Although Alabama’s population is about 27% black, 42% of confirmed cases of Covid-19 are within the black population, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“Operation Safe Streets” also rolls out amid breathtaking reminders that black lives are also disproportionately taken by police and vigilante violence. Tuscaloosa has a history of racially biased  police practices. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, black residents were 4.1 times as likely as white residents to be arrested for possession of marijuana. This, in a college town; this, amid robust and longstanding evidence that white and black people use marijuana, and therefore possess it, at roughly the same rates.

In an America on edge – and in some places on fire – in response to the death in police custody of a Minneapolis man named George Floyd who told the police officer whose knee rested on his neck, “I can’t breathe,” Tuscaloosa’s police chief has decided the best use of public resources is tint meters that will in all likelihood be used to pull over, cite, arrest, and incarcerate black bodies in a jail that is riddled with a disease that has disproportionately sickened and killed them.

      Tuscaloosa should think hard about what kind of city it wants to be. Right now, it is the kind of city that brags of a plan to funnel residents with windows it deems too dark into a jail unable to protect them from a deadly pathogen. This plan endangers the lives of the people who are arrested, the police who take them into custody, jail employees, and the families and communities they return to.

Operation Safe Streets will put the people of Tuscaloosa in harm’s way. At a time when safe jails are out of reach, it is unconscionable.

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.

Across Alabama, residents lose their jobs, housing, drivers’ licenses, and spend long stretches in jail because they cannot afford to pay court fines and fees. This week, a unanimous United States Supreme Court reminded states that this is not supposed to happen anywhere in America.

The case, Timbs v. Indiana, concerns the questionable practice of civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement is permitted to seize property of people merely suspected of criminal activity. But the Court devotes the bulk of its opinion to providing states a refresher on the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, reaching back to the Magna Carta and recalling Southern States’ Black Codes. Fines get special attention because they have been wrongly used to raise revenue, punish political enemies, and subjugate African Americans, in a way that conflicts with “the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

Alabama Appleseed has documented how thousands of Alabamians are trapped in cycles of debt, incarceration, and grinding poverty because they cannot afford to pay fines, fees, and court costs assessed against them or their families. A survey conducted last year found that court debt drove over 80% of survey takers to give up basic necessities, that over 50% had been jailed for being unable to pay what they owed, and that about 40% had committed crimes like stealing or selling drugs to pay court debt for non-felony offenses. The majority believed they’d never be able to pay everything they owed.

Terrence Truitt spent eight days in jail because he couldn’t afford to pay fines from fishing without permission, which he did to feed himself and his children. Terry Knowles lived in a tiny motel room with his extended family so he could be close enough to work to walk because he could not afford the fee to reinstate his license.

Callie Johnson missed payments on basic necessities because she was helping her children pay their court debt. Angela Dabney, a single mother, lost her driver’s license because she couldn’t afford to pay traffic tickets – and because she lost her license, she lost her job.

If there was ever any doubt, this week’s unanimous opinion makes clear that the kind of suffering imposed on these Alabama families runs afoul of the Constitution and must stop. At a minimum, fines should “be proportioned to the wrong” and “not be so large as to deprive an offender (of his) livelihood,” the opinion states.

Also at issue in the Timbs case was civil forfeiture. Alabama law enforcement officials have claimed that state laws protect citizens from the kinds of abuses documented in Timbs.

Not necessarily. As Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center reported last year, Alabama’s abusive civil asset forfeiture scheme, which allows the state to take money and property from people without even accusing them of a crime, enriches law enforcement agencies and disproportionately harms people of color. Civil asset forfeiture is an unjust process that deprives people of property without due process, and it should be abolished.

In its ruling, the high court stated that the constitutional provision which forbids excessive fines applies to states in civil as well as criminal cases when the resulting forfeitures are at least partially punitive. In essence, it found that Indiana’s seizure of a man’s Range Rover was unconstitutional because $42,000 was a radically disproportionate fine for the sale of $400 worth of heroin.

Here in Alabama, police more often seize rent money, not Range Rovers. Our study found that the amount of cash seized in civil forfeiture cases involved $1,372 or less in half of all cases examined. The legal fees to get it back are usually more, so most property owners never attempt to get their property back — even where they were not convicted of wrongdoing in connection with the seized property. That should give us all pause.

The fines levied against Terrence Truitt, Angela Dabney, Terry Knowles, Callie Johnson, and the other individuals who took Appleseed’s survey were on average far lower than $42,000, but their consequences were no less devastating. Because they had no way of paying what the state demanded of them, people who took this survey gave up food, shelter, and medicine. They went to jail.

An orderly society requires that violations carry consequences, and it is not Appleseed’s contention that individuals who break the law be permitted to “get away with it” simply because they are poor. But excessive fines are in the eye of the beholder, and Appleseed’s research makes clear that fines that would be manageable for some are devastating for others.

No one should lose their driver’s license, and with it, their ability to work, because they cannot afford to pay a ticket, fees, and interest for a busted headlight. No one should be jailed, or homeless, or give up medicine, or feel forced to accept charity or commit a felony, because they were too poor to pay their court debt. Alabama can fix this, by ending the practice of revoking licenses for unpaid traffic debt, and by evaluating individuals’ financial circumstances and scaling fines to their ability to pay.

Excessive fines are alive and well in Alabama, and they are destroying lives. As nine Supreme Court justices agreed this week — It’s time for a change.

Read it on AL.com