Opinion: Court debt harms Alabamians, but solutions are within reach

Opinion: Court debt harms Alabamians, but solutions are within reach

By CARLA CROWDER, Executive Director, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

Fearing federal intervention, Alabama leaders have focused on the state’s prison crisis for years. And rightly so. Yet, far outside the prison walls, Alabama’s court debt system is undermining public safety, needlessly jailing poor people, and trapping hard-working families in fear and poverty.

Imagine going to work every day to feed your children knowing the necessary act of driving to your job could land you in jail. This is the dilemma facing low-income people across Alabama, primarily citizens whose court debt stems from traffic and misdemeanor offenses.

A new report documents this woefully counterproductive court debt system and provides recommendations for common-sense reforms that state lawmakers should embrace. Many of these reforms would cost the state nothing and could even save precious government resources.  The report, Under Pressure: How fines and fees hurt people, undermine public safety, and drive Alabama’s racial wealth divide is based on surveys of 980 Alabamians who owe an average of $6,536 in court debt.

One striking finding — nearly four in ten committed a crime such as selling drugs, stealing, or sex work, in hopes it would help them pay court debt. Astoundingly, 20 percent of these had debt from traffic violations like driving with an expired tag: people who had never previously committed a crime engaged in felonies to stay current on their debt from traffic tickets.  The survey also revealed:

  • 82.9 percent gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments and child support to pay their court debt.
  • 49.6 percent were jailed for failing to pay court debt.
  • 19.9 percent were turned down for a diversion program like drug court because they could not afford the fees.
  • People who had been found indigent by a court were in greater jeopardy than people who had been able to afford lawyers of suffering some of the worst consequences, including being jailed for non-payment.

Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, UAB TASC, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and Legal Services Alabama released the report in October. It has since garnered state and national attention.

The findings are alarming because they demonstrate an unfair system that disportionately punishes the poor.  People who commit the same act — something as minor as an improper u-turn or fishing without permission — face very different punishments because of their relative wealth. Poor people of color are especially harmed, as African Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at higher rates than whites, yet historic inequities mean African Americans often lack the means to pay off court fines and fees..

The report also reveals multiple examples of inefficiency and lack of transparency in our government.  Consider:

  • Judges issue failure to appear warrants for people who could not appear for court because they were incarcerated in another jurisdiction.
  • Courts, prosecutors, and police become debt collectors which erodes public trust and shifts resources away from addressing serious crime.
  • The state does not disclose to the public complete information about the amount of money assessed or collected through municipal, district, and circuit courts.

Some judges who have witnessed the dysfunction first hand are particularly concerned.  “The financial burdens imposed by the justice system fall disproportionately on the poor.  They ensnare them in a financial prison of desperation, downward spiral and despair,” Retired Shelby County Circuit Judge Hub Harrington said after reviewing the report.

Stephen Wallace, a Circuit Judge in Jefferson County, weighed in as well:  “Courts should be about the delivery of justice and singularly focused or driven by the collection of fines and costs.”

Because the report is based on surveys from impacted people, researchers were able to uncover scores of individual stories that illustrate the counterproductive cycles of court debt.

Terrance Truitt’s case is particularly troubling. Truitt has been repeatedly ticketed for fishing without permission, which he relies upon to help feed himself. He has accumulated thousands in court debt, and has been jailed repeatedly for his inability to pay, including a months-long stint for being unable to pay off a ticket for driving without a seatbelt.  His arrests have been for fishing violations, marijuana possession, and traffic tickets.

This legislative session, Alabama’s elected leaders can begin to address the burden placed on all Alabamians by an unreliable, unfair court system funded on the backs of the poor by passing the following reforms:

  • A requirement that all Alabama courts report revenue received from fines, fees, court costs, and restitution and show how that revenue is disbursed.  
  • A prohibition on suspension of drivers’ licenses for individuals with unpaid court debt.
  • Elimination of failure to appear warrants (FTA) where an individual failed to appear because they were in government custody.

These changes aren’t a comprehensive solution to the problems caused by court debt, but they would do much to redress some of its most senseless and damaging consequences, making the state safer and allowing more Alabamians to participate in the workforce, engage with their communities, and move forward with their lives.

Alabama Appleseed: UNDER PRESSURE

The Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to work to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 18 Appleseed Centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City. Alabama Appleseed is also a member of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law’s Legal Impact Network, a collaborative of 36 advocacy organizations from across the country working with communities to end poverty and achieve racial justice at the federal, state, and local levels.