A new report finds that many Alabamians report sacrificing food, medicine, and other basic necessities — and in some cases, resorting to crime — to pay down unnecessarily burdensome court costs, fines, and fees. More than eight in ten Alabamians gave up necessities like food and medicine to pay down court costs, fines, fees, or restitution. Nearly four in ten committed a crime in hopes it would help them pay down their court debt. These are just two of the findings in a report on the collateral harms of criminal justice debt released today from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, University of Alabama at Birmingham Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities (UAB TASC), Greater Birmingham Ministries, and Legal Services Alabama.
The report – Under Pressure: How fines and fees hurt people, undermine public safety, and drive Alabama’s racial wealth divide – chronicles the experiences of nearly 1,000 Alabamians who are paying court debt either for themselves or for other people and reveals how this system tramples the human rights of all poor people who come through it, no matter their races or backgrounds. It also shows how Alabama’s racial wealth divide, coupled with the over-policing of African-American communities, means that African Americans are disproportionately harmed.
Because Alabama has rejected equitable mechanisms for funding the state and has instead created a system where courts and prosecutors are revenue collectors, each year Alabama’s municipal, district, and circuit courts assess millions of dollars in court costs, fines, fees, and restitution. Most of this money is sent to the state General Fund, government agencies, county and municipal funds, and used to finance pet projects.
“Our courts and prosecutors are supposed to be focused on the fair administration of justice,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Instead, because they are placed in the role of tax assessors and collectors, they are often forced to levy harsh punishments on those unable to pay. As a result, Alabamians who cannot afford their fines and fees must make unconscionable choices – skipping food or medicine or committing crimes to pay down their court debt. Alabama must stop trying to fund the state off the backs of poor people. It is inhumane, makes us less safe, and undermines the integrity of Alabama’s legal system.”
This hidden tax is disproportionately borne by poor people – particularly by poor people of color. In Alabama, African Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at higher rates than white people. For example, while African Americans and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, African Americans are over four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama.
“The over-policing of African-American communities means African Americans are far more likely than white people to face court debt,” said Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries. “This is made worse by Alabama’s legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, coupled with modern-day structural racism, which has left African-American Alabamians disproportionately impoverished as compared to their white peers. Thus, not only do the racial disparities in the enforcement of Alabama’s criminal laws make African Americans more likely to face court debt, but also Alabama’s racial wealth divide means that African Americans are more likely to face the harsh punishments placed on those who cannot afford to pay.”
The report highlights Alabama’s two-tiered justice system. People with the resources to make timely payments experience fine-only violations as costly nuisances at worst. They can minimize the fallout even from criminal charges by paying to participate in diversion programs that result in either reduced penalties or clean records if successfully completed. People without ready access to cash, meanwhile, find themselves in escalating cycles of late fees, collections fees, loss of driver’s licenses, jail time, and life-altering criminal records.
“Equal justice under law does not exist when a person’s punishment is determined by their wealth rather than their actions,” said Knaack. “For example, access to diversion programs are often based on nothing more than an individual’s financial well-being. Thus, people who commit the same act face very different punishments because of nothing more than how much money they have. This two-tiered justice system should have no place in Alabama.”
The report examines the collateral consequences of Alabama’s court debt system and explores the ways in which it undermines public safety and drives the state’s racial wealth divide. It was funded in part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which through its Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt, is developing strategies to lessen the impact of criminal and civil judicial fines and fees, as well as medical fees, and high-cost consumer products on communities of color.
The report can be found here.