In a letter sent yesterday to the United States Attorneys for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Alabama, the Southern Center for Human Rights, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Adelante Alabama Worker Center, the American Conservative Union, and FreedomWorks urged an investigation into Alabama sheriffs with federal detention contracts who have personally pocketed substantial amounts of taxpayer money from jail food accounts, in likely violation of federal law.
Many sheriffs in Alabama contend that state law permits them to keep funds allocated to feed people housed in their jails for their own personal profit, and some have taken tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for personal use. This interpretation of Alabama law has, however, been rejected by the Attorney General and the current Governor of Alabama. A number of these sheriffs house federal detainees (either defendants in federal criminal cases or immigrants facing deportation) in their county jails, pursuant to contracts with the United States Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Sheriffs with lucrative federal detention contracts have the potential to profit especially handsomely from this practice, and there is reason to believe that some have pocketed these federal funds for personal use.
In Monroe County, Alabama, for example, the per capita reimbursement rate for feeding state prisoners is $1.80 per day. For federal prisoners, it is over five times higher: $10 per day. In 2016, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office received a total of $26,710.80 in food funds from the State of Alabama, $5,505.00 in food funds from municipal contracts, and $108,620.00 in food funds from the federal detention contract. On December 30, 2016, the sheriff “declared excess and paid to” himself $44,402.77 – over $12,000 more than the total amount he had received from state and municipal sources, combined.
“The law is clear, and Governor Ivey has made clear: jail food funds are public funds, and should be used exclusively for feeding incarcerated people,” said Aaron Littman, staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Because these sheriffs have refused to disclose to the public how much taxpayer money they have taken, further investigation is urgently required to determine whether they are violating federal criminal and contracting law.”
“Diverting funds provided to feed prisoners is not only unethical, it is likely illegal,” said David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union. “A fundamental requirement of federal contractors is to use the money for the purposes for which it was given. In this case, the avarice of some Alabama sheriffs doesn’t pass the smell test. The stench should be investigated by those charged with protecting America’s taxpayers.”
When limited food funds are misappropriated by sheriffs, the health and safety of the people incarcerated in their jails is jeopardized. Recent media coverage of the food served at the Etowah County Detention Center included reports that inmates are frequently served meat packaged in wrapping that says “Not Fit For Human Consumption,” and donated chicken that is rotten and riddled with “tumors and abscesses and deformities.”
“It appears that some sheriffs have placed personal profit above their sworn duty to meet the basic needs of those in their care,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “We are deeply concerned that those charged with enforcing our laws are instead breaking them. No one is above the law – this includes Alabama’s sheriffs.”
“The people in these sheriffs’ custody are human beings, not abstract profit margins,” said Jessica Vosburgh, executive and legal director of Adelante. “As long as their jailers see each person behind bars as an opportunity to reap additional profits with impunity, the incentives to cut corners in ways that threaten these individuals’ basic safety will abound. Taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill with our wallets, and detained persons with their health, their wellbeing, and sometimes even their lives.”
The letter can be found here.
On Tuesday, Alabama Appleseed joined a diverse set of twelve organizations asking the U.S. Supreme Court to find that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause applies to the states. The case is Timbs v. Indiana. Mr. Timbs was arrested during an undercover drug enforcement operation, pled guilty, paid approximately $1,200 in fees, and was sentenced to home detention and probation. Months after his arrest, the government initiated a civil proceeding to forfeit Mr. Timbs’ personal vehicle that he had purchased with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy.
“Civil asset forfeiture has evolved from a program intended to strip illicit profits from drug kingpins into a revenue-generating scheme for law enforcement that is widely used against people — disproportionately African American — accused of low-level crimes or no crime at all,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “We join a diverse set of organizations including the Drug Policy Alliance, FreedomWorks, NAACP, and Americans for Prosperity in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize that civil asset forfeiture’s current incarnation has become a stark example of the abuse of power that the excessive fines clause was meant to curtail.”
This amicus brief highlights the broad, ideologically diverse consensus around the need to restrain governmental abuse of civil asset forfeiture programs. In addition to Alabama Appleseed, signatories to the brief include the Drug Policy Alliance, FreedomWorks, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, Americans for Prosperity, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Independence Institute (Colorado), Libertas (Utah), Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i, and the Rio Grande Foundation (New Mexico).
The brief can be found here.
For more information about how Alabama law enforcement abuse civil asset forfeiture, read our report here (cited in the amicus).
In response to Governor Kay Ivey’s announcement today that the Alabama Comptroller will now require sheriffs to sign an affidavit swearing that they will use jail food money for jail food, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice have released the following statements:
The following statement can be attributed to Aaron Littman, staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights:
“We strongly commend Governor Ivey and Comptroller Baxter for taking concrete action to address the misappropriation of large amounts of taxpayer money by sheriffs across the state. As Governor Ivey explained recently, treating jail food funds as personal income is both unreasonable and unsupported by the law. It is long past time for this abuse of public trust to end.”
The following statement can be attributed to Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice:
“Despite a long-standing Attorney General opinion stating that taxpayer dollars meant for jail food must be spent on jail food, some Alabama sheriffs have continued to treat jail food money as their own personal income. Today’s action by Governor Ivey will help ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on public services. We thank Governor Ivey for bringing increased accountability to Alabama’s jail food program.”
Dr. Wayne Flynt, Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University, will receive the 2018 Brewer/Torbert Public Service Award. First awarded in 2006, the award is given annually by Alabama Appleseed to an individual in Alabama who has demonstrated a substantial commitment to public service and the improvement of the lives of Alabamians.
Often referred to as the “Conscience of Alabama,” Dr. Flynt is one of the most recognized and honored scholars of Southern history, politics, and religion. Professor Flynt has spent his career teaching us how and why Alabama must do better.
“Dr. Flynt has devoted his life to issues affecting poverty and social justice, and his lessons have guided Alabama Appleseed in its pursuit of justice and equity for all,” said Frank McPhillips, chair of Alabama Appleseed’s Board of Directors. “The Brewer/Torbert Public Service Award luncheon will give us a platform to recognize Dr. Flynt’s distinguished commitment to these important principles.”
Dr. Flynt is a revered teacher, academic, and activist. During his 40 year teaching career at Samford and Auburn universities, he won 18 teaching awards. Dr. Flynt is the author of fourteen books (three co-authored), two of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Dr. Flynt served for a decade on the American Cancer Society’s Committee for the Socio-economically Disadvantaged, and was a co-founder of both the Alabama Poverty Project (now called ALABAMA POSSIBLE) and Sowing Seeds of Hope (Perry County). He has also served on the boards of Voices for Alabama’s Children and the A+ education reform coalition. In 1993 he served at the request of Gov. James E. Folsom, Jr. and Circuit Judge Eugene Reese as the court facilitator in the Alabama equity funding lawsuit.
The Brewer/Torbert Public Service Award was named in honor of Alabama Appleseed founding board members Gov. Albert P. Brewer and Chief Justice C.C. Torbert, both of whom made significant contributions to the state, both personally and professionally. Past honorees include Bill Smith, Tom Carruthers, Gorman Houston, Odessa Woolfolk, Mike Warren, Mike Goodrich, Ralph Cook, Janie Shores, Fred Gray, Johnny Johns, Neal Berte, and John Carroll.
The 2018 Brewer-Torbert Public Service Award luncheon will be held on September 20, 2018 at 11:45am at the Harbert Center in Birmingham. For more information about the luncheon, including sponsorship opportunities, please visit www.alabamaappleseed.org/brewer-torbert-public-service-award/.
In two memos sent yesterday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced that sheriffs may no longer personally profit from a very small portion of jail food funds: those state funds allocated for services in preparing and serving food to people in their jails. Contrary to media reports, these memos do not yet fully fix the problem of sheriffs personally pocketing these public funds.
In a statement, Governor Ivey said: “Public funds should be used for public purposes – it’s that simple.” While we applaud the Governor for taking a step towards accountability, her directive will have little practical impact on the problem it seeks to address. The reason is technical, but important. The Governor’s memos only prohibit sheriffs from personally profiting from what is referred to in § Ala. Code 14-6-43 as “food service allowance funds”. The memos do nothing to stop sheriffs from pocketing the far larger amounts of state monies that are provided, per §Ala. Code 14-6-42, for the cost of food itself.
The food service allowance funds make up a small fraction of the total amount that a sheriff receives. In 2017, across the state, sheriffs received $204,605.10 in food service allowance funds, and the far larger sum of $4,991,500.50 for food costs. This means that the food service allowance, which the Governor’s memo addresses, constituted less than 4% of the total amount of state jail food money given to sheriffs last year. In some counties, the difference was starker: in Baldwin County, Sheriff Huey Mack received a food service allowance of $4,106.25, and $293,980.75 to purchase food.
“We agree with Governor Ivey that the law does not permit the conversion of public funds – funds which are designated by statute for the feeding of prisoners – into personal income for sheriffs,” said Aaron Littman, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Unfortunately, unless this directive is revised, sheriffs will continue to pocket large amounts of taxpayer money from jail food accounts.”
“For decades some Alabama sheriffs have abused the public trust by placing personal profit over meeting the basic human needs of people in their care,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “We thank Governor Ivey for taking the first step to rein in this abuse and urge Alabama legislators to heed her call to end this for good.”
by Leah Nelson, researcher and Dana Sweeney, organizer
Payday industry supporters have often claimed that “neither the general public nor the so called ‘poor’ [are] clamoring” for payday lending reform in Alabama.
Actual borrowers might beg to differ.
Between October 2016 and September 2017, the State Banking Department reported that nearly 215,000 Alabamians took out 1.8 million payday loans – more than eight loans per customer, on average. Each of those loans represents an untold story of struggle where borrowers were forced to weigh the urgent need for cash against the prospect of repaying predatory lenders who charge interest rates as high as 456 percent APR and can demand full repayment within as few as 10 days.
Publicly available comments made by Alabama borrowers to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) show that for some, payday loans turn out to be a far greater financial burden than what drove them to payday lenders in the first place. These self-reported stories offer a small but representative window into the horrors of predatory lending for many Alabamians.
Writing in March 2015, an individual who borrowed $300 from a payday lender said they were receiving harassing phone calls every day from a lender who was automatically deducting money from their bank account, leading to hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees and forcing them to close their account. “I paid out a lot of money to the Bank for these transactions, money they could have had if they would not have kept trying to debit my account. I am so tired of this and I don’t know nothing else to do except not answer the phone,” the borrower wrote.
In May 2016, a borrower wrote that their payday lender was threatening to track them down at work. “They call me all day every day and if I fail to answer them they will call my sister, aunt, mom and harass them too.”
“I ‘m having to pay over $1000.00 for a $400.00 loan that I was told was paid for and that my balance was $0.00,” a borrower who had paid off their loan in full, only to have their bank account garnished in connection with unpaid fees, wrote in February 2017. “This is absolutely insane. How is this not illegal?”
“I was making payments until I lost my job and I contacted agency to see if I could postpone my payments until I began working again they refused my attempt and I haven’t heard from them since until today I received an email threatening to arrest me,” wrote an individual in May 2017.
“Been paying this company 2 payments every 2 weeks. They was only surposed to get 1 payment a month but taking out 2 every 2 weeks,” wrote another in May 2017. “I can’t pay my regarler bills because of this.”
“Though I do work full time I am struggling to pay off debt,” a single mother who was working with a debt consolidation program to pay off her various creditors, wrote in July 2017. The payday lender, she wrote, “has called my phone, my job, friends and family relentlessly!! They harass me on a daily basis!! I told them about me going through the debt consolidation place and they got very very nasty, saying they aren’t participating in this program, and demanding Money NOW!!”
The CFPB did what it could to follow up with lenders and help customers resolve, or at least gain clarity, about what was happening to them. A handful of cases were “closed with monetary relief.” But the majority were “closed with explanation” – that is, the only relief the borrower received was an understanding of why the lender was allowed to do what it was doing.
For desperate people seeking help with unmanageable debt, that’s no relief at all.
In Alabama, borrowers continue to find themselves crushed by rapidly ballooning debt traps and loans continue to be issued with triple-digit APRs. Many other states have passed successful reforms, including our Southern, business-minded neighbors in Georgia, Arkansas, and North Carolina, which eliminated payday lenders entirely without significantly impacting borrowers’ access to cash. But our legislature failed again this year by refusing to pass the simple 30 Days to Pay bill, even though the status quo harms thousands of Alabamians and other states have demonstrated that responsible reform is possible. That’s why predatory lending reform is supported by a diverse coalition including Alabama Appleseed, the State Baptist Convention, the United Methodists, the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Birmingham Business Alliance. Here in Alabama, that’s about as broad-based as it gets.
And we need our state leaders to listen now more than ever. At the national level, new leadership at the CFPB has steered the agency away from its mission of protecting consumers from abuse by large banks and corporations. Recent months have seen the CFPB refusing to enforce the federal judge-ordered punishment of a payday lender caught stealing millions of dollars from its customers, musing about eliminating basic guardrails meant to keep payday lenders from scamming borrowers, and even proposing that public comments made to the CFPB by consumers—like those featured in this article—be hidden from the public. Alabama lawmakers can no longer wait or depend on the CFPB to fix an issue that was created by the Alabama State Legislature. Lawmakers’ earliest opportunity to address this issue will be the upcoming 2019 Legislative Session, and after failing Alabamians again and again, they should finally take it.
Until then, though, Alabama borrowers will have to wait yet another year for relief – and payday lenders will get another year to line their pockets by fleecing our communities. Let’s make sure that they won’t be made to wait again.
My name is Alexis Nail and I am from Gadsden, Alabama and an upcoming junior at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. I am a major in Political Science with a minor in Human
Rights and Conflict Studies. I am currently working towards receiving a distinction in Leadership Studies on my diploma, and I plan to attend law school. Based off this alone, you can see why I would chose to work at a place like Alabama Appleseed! I am thrilled to be interning with Alabama Appleseed this summer and I am looking forward to all the new learning experiences I will have while here!
While I have always been interested in law, it wasn’t until I was introduced to a certain professor in college that I realized my passion for human rights. My freshman year I took a class called American Inequality, and it opened my eyes to how much injustice there is in the United States and the barriers that impoverished people face. I had always known there was inequality, but I had never been able to articulate the in-depth, systemic problems that impoverished people face. Through our readings of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Our Kids, and other works, I was able to see factual research on inequality and the many facets of it. Although our readings may not have always left me in the best of moods, it fired up my passion to do more in the world and to give my life and the lives of others meaning. We also were required to volunteer at different organizations around Birmingham, and this helped me to think critically about poverty and helped me see reflections of my in-class learning in everyday life. My class discussions and discussions with my professor were not only meaningful but have influenced my career path. Since taking this class, I have since added Human Rights Conflict Studies to my diploma, as well as Leadership Studies. I have also been heavily involved in efforts for change, including lots of volunteer work. I have spent the past two Spring Breaks traveling to different parts of the country to help provide aid for those in need, and I regularly volunteer at programs like First Light Women’s Shelter in Birmingham. Although I love volunteering, I desire to do more for people and to have a direct hand in making a positive change in the lives of others. American Inequality, along with other classes, and my community partnerships have shown me that I care more about the lives I touch, than the accolades that I may receive through my work.
Although I am very early in my career, interning with Appleseed feels like a natural progression
into the work that I plan to do, especially because many of their campaigns have aligned with subjects
that I have touched upon in my studies. Some of these topics include homelessness, criminalization of
the poor, and access to justice. Being subject to these issues not only violates human rights, but it
violates human dignity. Working with Alabama Appleseed will allow me to be able to delve deeper into
these subjects while also seeing real efforts for change across the state of Alabama. Appleseed also
incorporates the idea of going out into the community, which aligns well with my love for volunteering
and meeting those who we are advocating for. A crucial part of wanting to be an advocate for change is
to be prepared for all the hard work that goes into it. I look forward to seeing and participating in the
work that goes on behind the scenes. My hope for my time here is to make meaningful connections with
my colleagues and make significant moves towards bettering the lives of Alabamians.
The following statement is by Frank McPhillips, Chair of the Alabama Appleseed Board of Directors, on the passing of Clement Clay “Bo” Torbert Jr.:
Chief Justice Bo Torbert was beloved by everyone with whom he came in contact, known for his graciousness, his generosity, and his great humor. Chief Justice Torbert was a founding member and first Chair of Alabama Appleseed, one of many organizations that benefited from his commitment to making Alabama a better and more just state.
Chief Justice Torbert was a giant figure in Alabama politics before being elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 1976. I first got to know Chief Justice Torbert when he joined my law firm after his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1989. He was a mentor to numerous young lawyers not only because of his understanding of the law but also because he embodied the values of collegiality and respect for the opinions and ideas of others. As a testament to his stature in the Alabama legal community, the Heflin-Torbert Judicial Building (location of the Alabama Supreme Court) was named in his honor jointly with Hon. Howell Heflin.
Alabama Appleseed’s annual Brewer-Torbert Public Service Award is named for Chief Justice Torbert, along with Governor Albert Brewer, another founding member of Alabama Appleseed. We have an abiding responsibility to live up to the proud reputation that Chief Justice Torbert bestowed on us. We mourn the loss of Chief Justice Bo Torbert.
Alabama Appleseed today applauded the Alabama Senate’s vote to “ban the box” (SB198) on state employment applications. Banning the box would lead to greater opportunities for people with a criminal history as they re-enter their communities and the workforce.
“Banning the box better ensures that Alabamians seeking state employment are judged on their merit, not their mistakes,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Denying a person’s application without considering their qualifications or rehabilitation prevents people who’ve completed their sentence from getting a fair chance at a fresh start.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), more than 650,000 individuals are released from prison every year. The DOJ has identified three key elements to successful re-entry into our communities, one of which is finding and keeping a job.
“This legislation would help make our communities safer,” said Knaack. “As the Department of Justice found, recidivism rates are reduced when individuals are able to successfully re-enter their communities. And a key element of successful re-entry is helping individuals find and keep a job. By removing the criminal background box from state employment applications, individuals seeking state employment have an honest shot at securing a job. It’s a win-win – it provides people with a second chance to make an honest living and makes our communities safer.”
SB198 now moves to the House.
For additional information regarding SB198, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.