By: Akiesha Anderson, Alabama Appleseed Policy Director

Last summer, when I traveled to Auburn to celebrate Senator Tom Whatley’s birthday, I had no idea what would be birthed as a result of that trip. 

On my drive from Montgomery to Auburn, I had no plans to run into Representative Jeremy Gray after Senator Whatley’s birthday party, nor for Representative Gray and I to end up chatting in depth about working together to put together and pass a bill that gives people leaving Alabama prisons a grace period of 180 days post-release before they are required to have to pay back court-imposed fines and fees. 

Just four days prior to that weekend’s road trip, my colleague and fellow attorney Alex LaGanke and I met to have a conversation about one of our then legislative priorities – ensuring that people leaving the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”) were given state-issued identification cards upon release (a project we are continuing to work on with partners including several state agencies). In her role directly representing incarcerated clients and helping to facilitate the release and successful reentry of men from ADOC custody, Alex had become my go-to subject matter expert on the needs of this population. While we had regular meetings prior to this date discussing potential legislation regarding identification cards, on this particular day my conversation with Alex began with a story that took me aback and ultimately, led to monumental change in the state of Alabama. 

As we chatted, Alex explained that one of our clients whom we had recently helped get released from prison and whom we were currently providing reentry support for, had recently shared a shocking story. According to Alex and our client, that morning our client who was staying in transitional housing had talked a fellow resident out of committing a crime of theft or robbery and possibly getting sent back to prison. At the time, the housemate was feeling desperate because of court fines and fees he owed but didn’t have the money to pay yet because he had just  been released from prison and was still trying to get on his feet. Daily, he was required to attend various job training and reentry programs while simultaneously being expected to already have a job and the funds to pay back his fines and fees. Not surprisingly, this impossible situation was clouding his judgment and ability to see an alternative path forward beyond returning to a life of crime. Plus he was so poor, he was hungry. Thankfully, our client was able to talk his housemate off the ledge that morning, and subsequently no crime was committed as a vehicle for paying back his court-imposed fines and fees. 

Prior to my talk with Alex, I failed to realize that in Alabama, people released from prison had to start paying fines and fees immediately (or almost immediately, such as within 30 days if you ran into a gracious judge) upon release from prison. Long story short, this illumination led to a conversation between Alex and me about changing that legislatively. Subsequently, that conversation led to my unplanned conspiracy with Representative Gray a few days later and our agreement to work together to create a “Grace Period Bill,” later known as HB95 (that was co-sponsored by House Minority Leader, Representative Anthony Daniels), and which the Governor has recently signed into law. 

In effect, HB95 gives people leaving prison a grace period of 180 days post-release before they will have to pay back court-imposed fines and fees. Although there are some exceptions to this rule (for example, we were unable to get the full Legislature to agree to this bill including a grace period for restitution), this policy is sorely needed in Alabama and other states. In fact, when working to draft this bill, the only state that I could find that had a similar law on the books was Oklahoma (which also has a 180-day grace period).

Given the rarity of this kind of law, it’s no surprise that it wasn’t an easy process to get the Alabama Legislature to immediately agree to this bill. In fact, after nearly two hours of intense floor debate, it barely passed out of the House of Representatives in mid-February, and at that point, a floor amendment to cut the grace period in half – down to 90 days – had passed, despite protest and dissent from the bill sponsor, Representative Gray, who urged fellow House members not to agree to that change. Thankfully, when the bill came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Bobby Singleton successfully passed – with bipartisan support – his own amendment changing its length back to 180 days. Subsequently, in the final hours of the 2022 legislative session, the bill with the Singleton amendment attached, restoring the grace period to its initial length, ultimately successfully passed out of the Senate and was agreed to by the House of Representatives. 

HB95 also accomplishes something else that will help both incarcerated people and their families, who have to provide monetary support so that loved ones in prisons will have enough to eat, basic hygiene items, and such “extras” as tennis shoes and stamps. Thanks to a provision added by Representative Penni McClammy, whose own brother was once incarcerated, the new law now prohibits the state from taking money from an incarcerated person’s prison account for court-ordered fines and fees. 

While the reality of people having to pay back court-imposed fines and fees so close to the time that they were released from prison was news to me prior to my talk with Alex, the desperate choices people make to pay back such fines and fees was not. In fact, Alabama Appleseed has done extensive research into the ways in which fines and fees undermine public safety and drive people to make tremendous sacrifices – like giving up basic necessities or skipping rent payments and risking eviction – and even have caused some people to commit crimes such as selling drugs, committing theft, or engaging in sex work. 

Research has shown that on average, more than 8,500 people are released from the ADOC’s custody each year. Upon release, most formerly incarcerated people receive almost no re-entry services from the state, such as basic housing assistance. Instead, individuals transitioning back into society face a blockade and there is virtually no reasonable pathway for re-entry without family support, particularly for those who reach their end of sentence (“EOS”). Unfortunately, for many people, that crucial family support is either nonexistent or couched in an environment that is not healthy for an individual hoping to not recidivate.

Not surprisingly, it also often takes individuals several months after leaving prison to obtain stability and get on their feet (e.g., securing housing, jobs, identification cards, transportation, etc.) before they are able to be productive citizens again. Individuals who have served their time and are trying to make a life change but have limited to no support and no financial resources, need basic necessities to have any chance for safety and stability. Below are just a few of the costs and barriers people face:

  • Immediate need for a state-issued ID to access basic social services, housing, jobs, and open a bank account. Accessing the social security card and birth certificate required for a state ID can take weeks. A state-issued ID is at least $36 and often costs more. Multiple laws have passed requiring ADOC to assist individuals leaving prison with IDs, but those laws are not being implemented.
  • Transportation to access various government offices in order to access IDs and to get to jobs.
  • Clothing, shoes, toiletries, and food for basic survival, job interviews. This costs on average $750 for the first month. $200 per month in food stamps is available to offset these costs but only if the application is approved.
  • Phone – in order to access employers, job interviews etc. it typically will cost at least $500 to obtain a phone and 6 months of service.
  • Housing – minimum of $500/monthly in transitional housing.
  • $40 monthly supervision fee, if on parole.

In addition to the aforementioned costs and barriers, as stated before, prior to Representative Gray’s bill, people were also expected to practically immediately begin paying back their legal financial obligations (“LFOs”) including court-imposed fines and fees. 

For many formerly incarcerated individuals, their LFOs range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, according to research, the median amount of court debt assessed with regard to felony and misdemeanor convictions in Alabama is $1,808 for a felony conviction and $646 for a misdemeanor conviction. In addition, Alabama Appleseed’s study of nearly 1,000 Alabamians with experience with court debt found that “the minimum amount owed by a justice-involved individual in [our] sample was $32. The maximum amount [wa]s $250,000. The median amount owed was $2,700 and the mean was $6,536.” Also, the “most common amount owed was $2,000.” Although “those amounts may seem small to some, a 2014 survey of Alabamians with a felony conviction found that survey participants had a median annual income of $8,000, suggesting that the average Alabamian with a felony conviction… faces court debt equal to more than a fifth of their annual income.” As a result, justice-involved individuals are often in difficult financial straits immediately and even months after their release.

HB95 was written in recognition of the fact that payment of court-ordered fines and fees is next to impossible when someone has yet to secure other basic necessities like a job, housing, and transportation. The obstacles faced when reentering society and seeking employment can already feel insurmountable for many formerly incarcerated men and women, yet that burden becomes even heavier when these individuals are expected to either immediately begin paying back their fines and fees or face additional financial or criminal penalties. 

The passage and signing of this bill is a momentous example of the kinds of meaningful criminal justice reform that can be achieved in Alabama. As only the second Southern state to pass such a bill, I encourage state leaders to continue to seek ways that we can be seen as innovative and smart on crime rather than trapped by the failed and self-defeating tough on crime policies of the past. 

About Alabama Appleseed: Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. As Alabama’s only research and advocacy organization focused solely on reforming Alabama’s criminal justice system, Alabama Appleseed conducts integrated culture and policy change campaigns to confront laws and policies that harm the poor and to remedy the root causes of poverty and injustice. Our campaigns use policy analysis, research and documentation, legislative action, public education, community organizing, pro bono engagement, coalition building, and litigation. Alabama Appleseed is a vibrant, growing organization that prides itself on creating strategic, evidence-based solutions to some of the most pressing problems in Alabama, and allowing the ingenuity of our staff to lead the way.

Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 17 Appleseed centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

Position Summary: Alabama Appleseed seeks a Policy Associate to aid in: developing and implementing campaign goals; building and maintaining relationships with state legislators, administration officials, and other key elected officials; drafting, monitoring, and developing support for state legislation; and working closely with allies and coalition  partners around shared initiatives. The Policy Associate will work alongside the Policy Director to promote Appleseed’s research and reports among decision makers and serve as one of Appleseed’s strategists and contacts with the Alabama Legislature. The Policy Associate will have a strong voice in developing organizational campaigns and tools and must have a clear understanding of the opportunities and challenges of social justice and civil rights advocacy in Alabama. The Policy Associate reports to the Policy Director, and works closely with Appleseed’s Research Director and Organizer. This is a full-time position based in Appleseed’s Montgomery office, and will require some statewide travel. Candidates based in Birmingham yet able to be in Montgomery during legislative sessions (typically February – May) may also be considered. 

Responsibilities:

  • Develop deep understanding of Appleseed’s research and policy goals and communicate Appleseed’s work persuasively to a variety of audiences;
  • Work with Policy Director to develop legislative priorities and strategies;
  • Research and analyze laws and policies affecting Alabama communities, conduct comparative state analyses as needed. Develop advocacy tools, including fact sheets, talking points, public education materials, position letters and policy briefs. Produce high-standard written products for internal and external audiences, based on original research and analysis; 
  • Work alongside Policy Director to represent Appleseed at the Alabama Legislature. Lobby full-time during legislative session and any special sessions including: track and analyze legislative proposals, prepare and deliver testimony and supporting material; 
  • Work with lawmakers to draft and pass legislation supporting Appleseed’s policy goals. Attend legislative committee meetings, monitor the progress of legislation, develop speakers to support legislation, and effectively communicate legislative developments with community members, coalition partners, and other allies;
  • Help develop and implement strategies to lobby the Alabama Legislature and other stakeholders to support bills and policies that advance Appleseed’s legislative priorities. Develop relationships with elected officials, both at the state and local level;
  • Conduct district visits with key legislators during the legislature’s off season;
  • Work with Organizer and Policy Director to build and grow diverse coalitions of other statewide and national organizations to support shared goals;
  • Speak publicly on behalf of Alabama Appleseed at community meetings, coalition events, and lobby days.;
  • Cultivate bi-partisan allies and partners in multiple sectors including state and local government, direct service, the legal community, faith groups, advocacy nonprofits, and national groups to promote Appleseed’s legislative and policy goals;
  • Work within the Appleseed network by attending network convenings and contributing to shared projects;

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • One or more years of experience highly preferred, especially around legislative and policy advocacy campaigns or governmental affairs;
  • Bachelor’s degree preferred;
  • J.D. or other advanced degree helpful but not required if suitable candidate has demonstrated, relevant work experience;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license – this position will involve extensive travel throughout Alabama;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Ability to multi-task effectively and occasionally embrace administrative duties;
  • Willingness to work long hours during the legislative session;
  • Willingness to travel throughout the state, as needed, when the legislature is not in session;
  • Strong research and writing skills; experience drafting legislation a plus;
  • Skilled in Excel, Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and Google Docs.

Salary and Benefits: This position offers a competitive non-profit salary range of $45,000 to $55,000, depending on experience, along with a benefits package including health insurance, generous paid leave, and 401(k) after one year; reimbursement of travel-related expenses.

To Apply: Please send a cover letter, resume, writing sample, and three references, to Alabama Appleseed’s Executive Director Carla Crowder, at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis and accepted until the position is filled. Please write “Policy Associate” in the subject line.

The injustices that we are fighting in Alabama today are directly connected to long histories of inequality and oppression in this state. As we build our team to fight for a better Alabama, we know that people who have historically been overlooked need to lead. For this reason, we welcome and strongly encourage applications from people of color, women, people with criminal histories, people from working class backgrounds, and LGBTQ people.

Alabama Appleseed values an inclusive culture and diverse workforce. Alabama Appleseed encourages applications from all qualified individuals without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, national origin, marital status, citizenship, disability, veteran status, and record of arrest or conviction.

Alabama Appleseed’s priorities for the 2022 legislative session are narrowly focused on sensible reforms and investments. Our priorities reinforce what so many Alabamians are beginning to understand: as a state, we pour too much money into prisons and punishment and fail to invest in policies and services that will make us all safer and more prosperous.

This session, help us pass the following three priorities: 

End drivers license suspensions for low-wealth Alabamians

Right now, nearly 170,000 Alabamians have their driver’s licenses suspended because they failed to pay traffic tickets or failed to appear in court. That’s 170,000 people who can’t easily hold down jobs, take care of themselves or their families, or otherwise go about their lives – not because they’re dangerous drivers, but because they owe the state money. At the same time, Alabama is facing a staggering labor shortage, with more than two jobs for every jobseeker. Something’s got to change.

This session, Appleseed will support bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) and Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Birmingham) that would sever the connection between unpaid traffic debt and driver’s license suspensions while ensuring accountability for individuals who receive traffic tickets and maintaining protections against dangerous drivers. Specifically, the legislation will end suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets and failure to appear at compliance hearings about payment plans, while also making plain that drivers who simply ignore tickets can have their licenses suspended and leaving in place the points system that governs suspensions for habitually reckless drivers.

Reform is urgently needed. Businesses are suffering for lack of workers, and Alabamians who lost their licenses due to debt are making desperate choices in the meantime. Our 2018 survey of Alabama drivers whose licenses were suspended due to unpaid traffic debt found that 89% had to choose between basic needs like food, utilities, or medicine and paying what they owed; 73% had to request charitable assistance they would not have otherwise needed; 48% took out high-interest payday loans; and 30% admitted to committing crimes like selling drugs or stealing to pay off their tickets.

Alabama drivers need licenses so they can get decent jobs and do what they need to do to care for themselves and their families. This bill aims to help them get back on the road.

Invest federal COVID-relief funds into prison re-entry and diversion programs

In Alabama, individuals transitioning back into society after serving time for a criminal offense face a blockade and there is virtually no reasonable pathway for re-entry without family support. Individuals who have served their time and are trying to make a life change, but have no financial resources, need basic necessities to have any chance for safety and stability.

The State of Alabama currently provides no re-entry housing support for the vast majority of people exiting from the Alabama Department of Corrections’ custody. In fiscal 2021, that number was 4,122.  Appleseed’s proposal seeks to provide bare minimum support to this population in order to provide stability during their first months outside of prison and increase public safety. 

The Legislature should approve $10 million in American Rescue Act (ARPA) funding for licensed, private, nonprofit providers of housing and re-entry services throughout the State. Housing could be provided using two models: the group home/halfway house setting and the community-based transitional home model.  For $10 million annually, approximately 2,000 returning individuals could be safety housed as they get back on their feet. Models in Georgia, Texas, and Michigan have been enormously successful.

Already lawmakers have devoted $400 million in ARPA funds to help build two, new mega prisons, a controversial decision that has been widely criticized. Lawmakers must decide this session how to spend another $580 million. A small fraction for re-entry housing would help address the desperation and homelessness that thousands of people who leave prison every year face.

On the front end, lawmakers should use this rare federal funding opportunity to improve and support programs such as drug courts and diversion that treat people arrested for minor, nonviolent drug crimes in communities rather than sending them to Alabama’s unconstitutional prisons.

As Appleseed found in our 2020 report, In Trouble, these programs can cost thousands of dollars, which makes them inaccessible for low-income people.  More than eight in 10 participants we surveyed gave up a necessity like food, rent, or medicine to pay for a diversion program. One in five had been turned down for a diversion program because they could not afford it. 

Provide a grace period for individuals returning from prison to pay fines and fees

Finally, Appleseed is working to provide greater opportunities for success to formerly incarcerated people through legislation that would grant people a six month “grace period” following release before they must begin paying back court fines and fees. 

People often leave prison with little more than a few dollars and a change of clothes. They have no identification, they have a felony conviction, plus housing challenges. It is hardly a formula for success. On top of these challenges, most justice-involved people have accumulated thousands of dollars in court fines and fees – sometimes for decades-old traffic tickets. They must begin paying immediately or face re-arrest. It’s an endless cycle that costs all Alabamians and makes no one safer. 

Representative Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika) will sponsor legislation that will grant justice-involved people a six-month “grace period” before they have to begin paying back fines and fees after being released from prison. It just makes sense.

Join Appleseed’s Action Network to keep updated on our priority issues and more this session. Thank you for standing with us to build a better Alabama! 

My name is Brenita Softley, and I am deeply honored to join Alabama Appleseed as a part-time extern. I am in awe of this organization’s mission to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians— which are reasons that I decided to attend law school.

My interest in the legal realm sparked with the death of Trayvon Martin. I knew that our system was unfair, but this realization hit differently when I noticed the criminal legal system telling someone that looked like me and was the same age as me that their life did not matter. I noticed that even when Black people were killed, they were always treated as the aggressor. Realizing this, I wanted to advocate for the most marginalized in society. Throughout my law school journey, I realized that criminal defense was the best way for me to do this. 

The summer following my first year of law school was historical for two reasons: our nation was fighting two pandemics at the same time—COVID 19 and racial injustice. Don’t get me wrong, racial injustice has always been a problem in our country…especially since the original sin of our country was slavery. However, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked a more modern nationwide movement. Inspired by their deaths, my classmate and I started a podcast entitled “Welcome to My America” where we discussed racial injustice and how to combat it. That summer, I expounded on this mission when I interned at the Tuscaloosa County Public Defenders’ Office. In my work there, I realized how our criminal legal system oppresses the poor. A lot of our clients were homeless or barely had enough income to sustain themselves. Yet, they were required to pay hundreds of dollars in court costs and fines. I also realized that many of our clients often resorted to crime out of necessity due to being impoverished. However, the law did not care. I made a vow to make sure that would change.

During my second year of law school, I interned with the Children’s Rights Clinic where I saw the school to prison pipeline play out. As an intern in the clinic, my job was to draft individualized education plans, ensure that my clients received appropriate educational services, and highlight mitigating arguments to the court. It was in my internship with The Southern Center for Human Rights that I realized just how important mitigation is. During my internship, I was assigned to two capital cases. Many of our clients had committed their crimes for  reasons such as PTSD, poverty, or the inability to understand right from wrong. What was most heartbreaking was that one of our clients was innocent. When I visited him in prison, I was amazed at how much we had in common. I didn’t expect us to have family from the same small town of Florence, Alabama. I didn’t expect him to have a daughter that was in the same sorority as me or who went to the same school that I did. I didn’t expect him to have the same smile and glow as my dad as he was telling me about his daughter’s accomplishments. I also didn’t expect him to tell me that his source of hope was waking up each day and seeing 14 bars since this reminds him that he woke up to see another day. This client was sent to death row because of systemic injustice and racial bias that permeates the criminal legal system in Alabama. These are issues that Alabama Appleseed confronts in its work. 

Each of these experiences gave me insight into the issues that plague our criminal legal system. During my final year of law school, I was able to use these various experiences in acting as a student attorney in the University of Alabama School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic. In the clinic, my classmates and I represented Tuscaloosa residents accused of crimes under the supervision of our professor.  I was able to participate in various plea negotiations, draft motions, and make oral arguments to the court. Fighting zealously for my clients solidified my interest in criminal justice reform since I realized just how imbalanced our criminal legal system is—in the words of Paul Butler, it is designed for poor people and minorities to lose.

As a lifelong resident of Alabama, I want our state to improve and have a just criminal legal system. A criminal legal system that does not perpetuate racial disparities in arrests or sentencing. One that does not hinder the rights of the accused. One that does not cause minorities to question whether police are there to kill them or protect and serve. And one that does not punish people for simply being poor. This is something that Alabama Appleseed fights for each day by examining laws and policies through a lens of poverty and racial injustice. I am honored to use my experiences to help them in this fight.

Appleseed joins the many (many!) outstanding nonprofits for the Giving Tuesday campaign on Tuesday, November 30, 2021. This global day of giving highlights the important work accomplished because of generous donors everywhere.

Appleseed humbly asks for your support this day (and beyond) specifically for our re-entry work. Our legal advocacy and support for older, formerly incarcerated men changes lives. Appleseed is proud to stand with people who have turned their lives around and are returning to Alabama communities after decades behind bars. These men leave prison with nothing and support is desperately needed. 

As our client Michael Schumacher explained in a recent presentation, the prison gave him $10 and a one-way ticket to the county of arrest, where he would not have a clue what to do, with his family gone and so many changes in the world. Because of supporters like you, Appleseed has provided his transportation, housing, and a warm embrace into a new life of hope. Michael, a gentle soul and former prison Scrabble champion, is starting over at age 61.

From securing social security cards, driver’s licenses, and bank accounts; to scheduling  medical appointments; to teaching our clients about cell phones, food safety, and more, Appleseed is with our clients every step of the way. Thank you for your generosity as we support justice-involved Alabamians as they transition to their newfound freedom and a second chance at life.

  • $21 covers the fee to secure a client’s birth certificate
  • $36.25 covers the fee for a driver’s license or ID
  • $50 covers a tank of gas for our Re-entry Coordinator to drive clients to their necessary appointments weekly
  • $100 covers a week of housing for one of our clients
  • $500 covers a post-release shopping trip for our clients for necessities and a wardrobe, including interview clothing

Please click here to donate! Thank you for your fabulous support.

About Alabama Appleseed: Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed conducts integrated culture and policy change campaigns to confront laws and policies that harm the poor and to remedy the root causes of poverty and injustice. Its campaigns use policy analysis, research and documentation, legislative action, public education, community organizing, pro bono engagement, coalition building, and litigation. Alabama Appleseed is a vibrant, growing organization that prides itself on creating strategic, evidence-based solutions to some of the most pressing problems in Alabama, and allowing the ingenuity of our team to lead the way. Our work sits at the intersection of poverty and the justice system.

Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 18 Appleseed centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

Position Summary:  Alabama Appleseed seeks a Legal Fellow to assist with direct representation of incarcerated clients in post-conviction and parole proceedings. This is a one-year contract for a grant-funded position in our Birmingham office, with the possibility of a longer-term commitment. Appleseed’s Legal Fellow conducts legal research, examines clients’ backgrounds and institutional records, and prepares legal memos and post-conviction pleadings. This position is also involved in re-entry planning and supports for formerly incarcerated clients. The Legal Fellow reports directly to the Executive Director and works closely with the Staff Attorney. Occasional travel will be required to Appleseed’s Montgomery Office and to prisons in Alabama. This position comes with the opportunity to apply creative advocacy to serious injustices that impact thousands of incarcerated Alabamians. You will make a difference here.

Primary Responsibilities:

  • Legal research, specifically criminal law, post-conviction law and procedure, and Eighth Amendment jurisprudence;
  • Review and organize requests for legal assistance from incarcerated Alabamians;
  • Visit and interview incarcerated clients;
  • Draft post-conviction petitions;
  • Represent incarcerated Alabamians in parole proceedings;
  • Contribute to Appleseed’s blog;
  • Assist formerly incarcerated clients with release plans and re-entry services.

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • Juris Doctorate from an accredited law school; 
  • Demonstrated interest in criminal law;
  • License to practice law in Alabama preferred;
  • Excellent legal writing skills;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Ability to multi-task effectively and occasionally embrace administrative duties;
  • Skilled in Excel, Microsoft Word, and Google Docs;
  • At least one internship or professional experience with post-conviction litigation; recent law school graduates considered with relevant internship or clerkships during law school.

An Ideal Candidate Brings:

  • Some experience in post-conviction legal practice;
  • Experience in researching criminal backgrounds, especially using Alacourt;
  • Experience drafting Rule 32 petitions in Alabama courts;
  • Ability to organize large amounts of data in Excel;
  • Demonstrated interest in challenging excessive punishment in the criminal justice system; 
  • At least minimal knowledge of Alabama parole procedures;
  • Willingness to work closely with formerly incarcerated people and assist their successful re-entry.

Salary and Benefits: This position offers a competitive non-profit salary of $50,000, along with a benefits package including health insurance, generous paid leave; reimbursement of travel-related expenses.

To Apply:  Send a cover letter, resume, writing sample, and three references to Alabama Appleseed’s Executive Director, Carla Crowder, at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org. Please write “Legal Fellow” in the subject line. We are seeking to fill this position quickly so interested applicants should apply as soon as possible.

The injustices that we are fighting in Alabama today are directly connected to long histories of inequality and oppression in this state. As we build our team to fight for a better Alabama, we know that people who have historically been overlooked need to lead. For this reason, we welcome and strongly encourage applications from people of color, women, people with criminal histories, people from working class backgrounds, veterans and LGBTQ people.

Alabama Appleseed values an inclusive culture and diverse workforce. Alabama Appleseed encourages applications from all qualified individuals without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, national origin, marital status, citizenship, disability, and record of arrest or conviction.

We are thrilled to announce the release of another client, Joe Bennett, today – his first free world birthday in 24 years. Once sentenced to die in prison, Mr. Bennett walked out of Donaldson Correctional Facility on September 21, 2021, after a Jefferson County judge granted Appleseed’s motion for post-conviction relief and resentencing. 

Staff Attorneys, Alex and Carla pose for a picture with the newly released Joe Bennett outside the entrance of Donaldson Correctional Facility.

Staff attorney Alex LaGanke and Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen have been working in tandem with Joe and have come together to share his story.

Alex will open the blog with background on Joe’s case. Ronald, former Appleseed client and inaugural Reentry Coordinator, will share his reflections aiding his first client through reentry. 

Two Years Versus a Lifetime
By Alex LaGanke

In 1997, Joe was given two life-without-parole (“LWOP”) sentences for two counts of robbery stemming from a single incident at a barbecue restaurant in Birmingham’s Eastlake neighborhood. Joe is one of the many people in Alabama who have been condemned to die in prison for an offense without physical injury, enhanced by minor prior offenses under the Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA).

Due to changes in that law in the 1990s and sentencing reforms in 2015, three of the four prior offenses used to enhance Joe’s sentence under the HFOA could not be used for enhancement purposes today. His prior offenses included low-level felonies that are now classified as misdemeanors, including two purse snatching cases, and possession of a controlled substance.  If sentenced today, Joe would be ineligible for a sentence of life imprisonment without parole; rather, he likely would receive a split sentence with two years prison time and seven years on probation: two years versus a lifetime. 

Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr recognized the unfairness of this sentence and did not oppose our post-conviction motion for resentencing, and Circuit Judge Shanta Owens signed the order granting immediate release.

Joe Bennett on the day of his release.

At 27-years-old, Joe’s LWOP sentence meant leaving behind two small children, who are now grown adults with children of their own; forfeiting the chance at a career; and missing over two decades of significant societal changes, making adjustment to today’s world increasingly challenging. But it is also true that Joe’s prison sentence provided discovery of a wide-ranging musical talent, cultivation of a lifelong support network, and even drug rehabilitation. Remarkably, Joe managed to avoid receiving a single disciplinary infraction during his 22 years in prison. If you know anything about Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”), where you can get a write-up for having an extra pack of ketchup, you know this to be a miraculous feat. 

At Appleseed, we see our clients’ remarkable institutional records as a testament to the human capacity to evolve, mature, and realize unearthed potential. We have the highest regard for our clients – who are artists, Scrabble champions, ministers, musicians, and paralegals – because they corrected themselves in a corrections system that encourages anything but correction, improvement, or rehabilitation. To be clear, Joe Bennett did not just survive a corrections system that necessitates violence for protection, fuels drug trafficking, and maintains inhumane living conditions declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Department of Justice; he thrived. He was a leader, an honor dorm resident, and musician at the prison chapel.

In fact, Joe is so phenomenal that at 52-years-old (53 today!), he has been working day in and day out as a tree groundsman. But before I get too carried away with all the impressive things Joe has done since he’s been out, I’ll let Ronald take it from here to discuss, rather poetically, Joe’s reentry process.

“Who better to assist them than a person like me?”
By Ronald McKeithen

It’s difficult to describe the emotions that overwhelmed me as I waited for Joe to walk through those prison gates, the same gates I exited nine months prior after serving 37 years. Being back at Donaldson Correctional Facility that Friday in September, I found myself reliving that same burst of joy that exploded within me once I laid eyes on the people that saved my life and wondered if Joe will be able to restrain from dropping to his knees with tears of joy shamelessly flowing down his cheeks. 

As I stood there, I also couldn’t help but think about the difficulties he will face as he struggles to rebuild his life in a world he hasn’t seen in over two decades. You see, my reason for being at Donaldson wasn’t just to greet a friend on the happiest day of his life, but also to ensure that his transition has as few hurdles as possible. Which is why Alabama Appleseed hired me. 

Here’s me super psyched about Joe’s release, taking an awkward pic on the side of the road at a convenient store after we got kicked off Donaldson prison campus for celebrating Joe’s release.

Freeing their clients is only the first step. Ensuring their clients’ success in becoming productive members of society has become a priority as well. And who better to assist them than a person like me who has endured the same pain and has faced the fear and uncertainty that this new world brings?

Not long ago, the State of Alabama believed that a person needed only $10 and a one-way bus ticket to start a new life after prison, regardless of how many years they served. The State has been so kind to increase it to $10 for every five years you’ve served, which is still not enough for a meal, room, and board. And for those of us who’ve served decades, we are unlikely to have the proper documents needed to get a job. Getting copies of birth certificates, social security cards, non-driver’s license, driver’s license, and medication, for starters, is a long process that will require resources, far more than the amount awarded upon release. 

Here at Appleseed, we lessen our returning clients’ fears by not only standing beside them as they maneuver through this reentry maze, but also assisting them, if needed, in paying the fees of each document, finding housing, taking them on an initial trip to the store for all the necessary things returning citizens’ don’t have. And that just scratches the surface. 

I have put in hundreds of miles, alongside my amazing mentor and fearless, all-knowing supervisor Alex (wow, Alex), to secure Joe a valid state ID, birth certificate, and bank account; taking him to and from a job-readiness course at Salvation Army to his tree cutting job at sites all across Birmingham; and sharing with him everything I’ve learned about this city and world that has changed so much since we were kids here. 

I asked Joe to share some words about his transition thus far, and this is what he had to say: “I’m enjoying life by God’s grace through the way of the wonderful organization of Alabama Appleseed – I thank you all so much. I’m just learning, experiencing. And just knowing that I’m being a productive citizen feels wonderful and great.  I’m just elated. I can’t thank Appleseed enough.”

I even had the opportunity to talk to a long-time supporter of Joe’s and current employer, Robert Reid of Greenbriar Tree Service, LLC, who has been instrumental in Joe’s release and reentry. Mr. Reed said this about Joe: “Joe has become one of my greatest employees at Greenbriar Tree Service. He is faithful, has integrity, and does anything you ask him to. He is learning so fast and has done such a great job.” Mr. Reid met Joe at Donaldson prison through a prison ministry years ago and continues to support him by providing this job and many other supports. 

Joe and Robert pose for a picture at Cracker Barrel after Joe’s release. He wanted breakfast for his first free world meal!

I am so elated to have the opportunity and responsibility of assisting Joe Bennett as he takes necessary steps to building a life he could only dream of just a few short months ago. And I can’t wait to see what freedom has in store for him! 

Appleseed’s local clients gather for a picture with Joe at Shepherd’s Fold the day after his release. L to R: Alonzo Hurth (70 y/o, 27 years in DOC); Joe Bennett (53 y/o, 22 years in DOC); Ronald McKeithen (59 y/o, 37 years in DOC); Michael Schumacher (61 y/o, 36 years in DOC).

We cannot do this work alone

Over the last year, Appleseed has worked with incredible partners – individuals and organizations who care deeply about returning citizens and help provide the necessary supports. We would be remiss in giving thanks where it is undoubtedly due, to our amazing community partners whose resources, services, and kindness to the most vulnerable make acclimation for our clients possible: 

  • Shepherd’s Fold
  • Christ Health Center
  • Greater Birmingham Ministries, Voting Restoration Program
  • Community on the Rise
  • Salvation Army, Ready to Work Program
  • UAB Eye Care 

Ronald and Alex are signing off, but stay tuned for more updates on Joe’s amazing progress and Ron’s job with Appleseed! 

By Leah Nelson
Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

It’s been 367 days since Sean Worsley walked out of Staton Correctional Facility and into the arms of his wife, Eboni. This Veteran’s Day, Alabama Appleseed is celebrating with Sean and Eboni as they look back on a year of freedom, healing, and some heartbreak – and forward to what lies ahead.

Sean and Eboni Worsley are celebrating a year of being reunited after Sean was incarcerated for medical marijuana.

Sean is a Black, Purple Heart-decorated Iraq War veteran. In 2017, he was sentenced to five years in prison for bringing his legally prescribed medical cannabis from Arizona into Alabama. His release two days before Veteran’s Day 2020 was something of a miracle in light of the unprecedentedly low rate at which the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted parole in recent years. It was brought about by collaborative and individual advocacy by reform groups, elected officials from both sides of the aisle, veterans’ groups, cannabis industry insiders, and others. Thousands of people, inside Alabama and out, were rooting for Sean and Eboni to succeed.

On this Veteran’s Day, the good news is that things are looking up for the Worsleys – and for Alabama. Despite a challenging year, the couple has made great strides. They’ve moved to California, where Sean is now on unsupervised probation. They’ve built a community of allies and friends. Their experience was lifted up on PBS Nova as an object-lesson in why cannabis policy must evolve. It also helped prompt reflection and change within Alabama, where lawmakers in May overwhelmingly supported a law that made Alabama the 36th state to legalize medical cannabis.

“It’s like going under the ocean. You have to come up slowly.”
In the early days after Sean came home from prison, Sean and Eboni focused on healing. Moving forward after what they went through, Eboni said, is “like decompressing. It’s like going under the ocean. You have to come up slowly. You can’t come straight to the top and just be OK.”

Support from friends and well-wishers helped. The couple used funds raised online to settle into a house in Shelby County. A local employer had who had read about Sean had a job waiting for him when he was released. An Alabama family who was moved by their story gave the couple a car. And a licensed professional counselor offered free services to help Sean readjust to life outside prison walls after nearly a year being retraumatized by incarceration in some of America’s most dangerous and neglected prisons.

Sean and Eboni visit with Appleseed’s Leah Nelson, who first shared the story of Sean’s incarceration and continued to advocate for his release until he was freed Nov. 9, 2020. Photo by Jill Friedman

There were challenges and heartbreaks. Sean and Eboni had hoped to spend time with Sean’s two teenaged children from previous relationships, but their mothers were afraid to let them visit him in Alabama after Sean’s experience being arrested and incarcerated here. A brush with police who trailed Sean at a store near his home, claiming over the objections of employees that he resembled a suspect in a recent shoplifting case, terrified them. Most crushingly, in June, they lost a son after a much-welcomed but complicated pregnancy ended with his stillbirth at 24 weeks’ gestation.

But the Worsleys, who moved to California in May, are in a much better place than they were a year ago and they are optimistic about what comes next. California law enforcement downgraded Sean’s supervision from parole, which in Alabama included in-person check-ins with an officer several times a month, to unsupervised probation, which meant a monthly phone call with a probation officer. And on Christmas Day 2021, Sean’s term on probation will end completely. For the first time in four years, they will be free to travel as they please and live where they choose.

As they look ahead, both Sean and Eboni said what they want more than anything is to take ownership of their lives again.
“I appreciate everything that everybody has done to help. The donations and all of that, the messages, the emails. It is overwhelming, the amount of messages,” Sean said. “I also want people to understand, I most definitely am the type of person – I would rather have my stability back than anything. I’m the type of person, I’m going to work. I’m going to do what I need to do to support my family. I wasn’t a slouch or somebody that didn’t work before this and I won’t start now.”

“There’s still a lot more work to do.”
Despite the injustice of the Worsleys’ experience in Alabama, there are signs that this state, rarely quick to embrace big change , took some lessons from Sean and Eboni Worsley. In May, Alabama lawmakers passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana for a range of illnesses. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle invoked Sean’s story in committee discussions and on the House floor in defending their decision to vote in favor of the controversial bill.

Rep. Neil Rafferty (D-Birmingham), a Marine Corps veteran who was instrumental in marshaling support for Sean’s parole in 2020, said Sean’s experience says much about how far Alabama still has to go.

While he was pleased to see the medical cannabis law pass, Rafferty also said it did not go far enough. Specifically, he noted that the law would not have offered protection to Sean even if it had been in place in 2016 because Sean’s marijuana was brought in from another state and was not in a form the new law makes legal, Rafferty said. The new law “still puts people that can’t afford access to care or whatever the case may be in a precarious situation with the criminal justice system,” he said. “There’s still a lot more work to do when it comes to cannabis reform,” he said. “It’s still the intersection of these three issues that we still haven’t fully addressed. … Over-policing, a misunderstanding of veterans’ issues, and of cannabis.”

Indeed, Alabama has much work to do. But the fact that Sean and Eboni Worsley will celebrate this Veteran’s Day together in California and not separated by prison walls in Alabama is a sign that progress can happen when people who care about justice come together.

Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder delivered the following remarks to the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee on September 28, 2021 in opposition to the HB 4, a bill to spend $1.2 billion dollars on two new 4,000-bed prisons.

 

My name is Carla Crowder. I am a lifelong Alabamian and executive director at Alabama Appleseed, a non profit dedicated to justice and equity for all Alabamians.

Appleseed supports safer prisons. We support leaky roofs being fixed. Working plumbing and sewers.  Space for mental health care, drug treatment and educational programs.  Safe places for the 25,000 Alabamians in state custody to live without fear for their lives.  We are not against all new construction and I want to be clear about that.

As a lawyer, I have visited most of the prisons that are the subject of the DOJ lawsuit and I know they are wretched.

I have also read the lawsuit. And the 2 comprehensive DOJ reports issued before the lawsuit was filed.

Those documents are primarily concerned with unabated violence, including homicides, sexual assaults, excessive force by guards and the introduction of contraband – by staff – that propels this violence.

In the exact words of the United States Department of Justice:

“While new facilities might cure some of these physical plant issues, it is important to note 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 devises, as is currently the case.”

The Department of Corrections has had 2 and half years to address this litany of deficiencies – understaffing, culture, corruption, training, and conditions have only gotten worse.

This year alone there were 34 deaths inside ADOC this year due to homicide, suicide or drugs, the highest death count in recent memory. It’s gotten worse since DOJ began investigating, that’s why they sued.

Buildings are not killing people.

Appleseed’s concern with this bill is not about fighting new prison construction. Its because this bill promises an Elmore facility with enhanced medical and mental health care, education and rehabilitation services, humane treatment for elderly people. But it provides no funding for these things.

Our concern with this bill is that Alabama has never built 4,000 bed prisons. We can’t staff 1,000 bed prisons. This bill does nothing to address the staffing crisis that has been unmet even with a federal court order in the Braggs mental health case.

The Department of Corrections now swallows 25% of the General Fund. Y’all know that. Money that’s not going all the other state needs like mental health, drug treatment, public safety, public health.

This plan provides even more money to this dysfunctional agency. We keep reading about $1 billion in deferred maintenance on the current prisons. Why was the maintenance deferred? Why wasn’t it just done?

The crucial things envisioned by this construction bill – specifically the Elmore facility services, could easily go unfunded and undone – just like this deferred maintenance.

We would request – that if these new facilities promise actual treatment and rehabilitation, that we get answers as to how those necessities will be funded. And how they will be staffed.

This current plan – which relies on one-time federal COVID dollars – to barely pull enough money together for buildings alone provides no confidence that what is actually needed will ever be funded.

Finally, from the DOJ lawsuit – notice that new facilities are one of six things on the list of constitutional concerns.

“Since the United States notified the State of its findings, Alabama’s Prisons for Men have remained extremely overcrowded, prisoner-on-prisoner homicides have increased, prisoner-on-prisoner violence including sexual abuse has continued unabated, the physical facilities have remained inadequate, use of excessive force by security staff has remained common, and staffing rates have remained critically and dangerously low. In the two years following the United States’ original notification to the State of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, prisoners at Alabama’s Prisons for Men have continued daily to endure a substantial risk of serious harm, including death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners.”

Before passing a bill that addresses  one of six issues here – at a cost of $1.2 billion – we would ask this committee to set aside  funding for some of the other five problems. Or at least for the treatment promised by this construction bill.

 

 

 

Come join our growing team working for justice and equity for all Alabamians!

About Alabama Appleseed: Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed conducts integrated culture and policy change campaigns to confront laws and policies that harm the poor and to remedy the root causes of poverty and injustice. Its campaigns use policy analysis, research and documentation, legislative action, public education, community organizing, pro bono engagement, coalition building, and litigation. Alabama Appleseed is a vibrant, growing organization that prides itself on creating strategic, evidence-based solutions to some of the most pressing problems in Alabama, and allowing the ingenuity of our staff to lead the way. Our work sits at the intersection of poverty and the justice system.

Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 17 Appleseed centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

Position Summary:  Alabama Appleseed seeks a Project Manager and Liaison for Jefferson County to grow our efforts to confront the harm imposed on low-wealth residents through traffic fines and fees, criminal court debt, and other costs imposed on justice-involved individuals. For the past several years, Alabama Appleseed has been studying the extensive collateral consequences that these types of debt have on the lives of Alabamians (see: the Under Pressure report on our website). This position will focus on how local jurisdictions can work differently to remedy some of the harms that we have identified.

This team member would manage our innovative Project JEFF (Jefferson County Equitable Fines and Fees Project) a 3-year data-driven project aimed at identifying trends, geographies, and harms associated with court debt and creating remedies to remove the collateral consequences of unpaid debt in Alabama’s largest county. Using the data and strategies developed during the Project JEFF implementation, this team member would conduct additional outreach to stakeholders from local government and courts, industry, direct services, education, and workforce development in order to broaden the impact of this project and Appleseed’s advocacy to additional jurisdictions.

The Project Manager reports directly to Appleseed Research Director, Leah Nelson, who oversees Project JEFF. This is a 2-year grant-funded position based in Appleseed’s Birmingham office, and will require occasional travel to Montgomery. This position also offers flexibility as to full time work or 30 hours per week. 

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • Three or more years of experience highly preferred in nonprofit or governmental project or program management;
  • Bachelor’s degree preferred;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Strong research and writing skills;
  • Track record in relationship-building and working well with diverse stakeholders;
  • Familiarity with public records requests and working with court records;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Ability to multi-task effectively and occasionally embrace administrative duties;
  • Skilled in Excel, Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and Google Docs.

An Ideal Candidate Brings:

  • Authentic connection to Alabama, especially central Alabama;
  • Familiarity with local government and courts in municipal, county, and state systems;
  • Ability to navigate ambiguous situations with no clear right or wrong answer;
  • Experience with public records requests;
  • Ability to manage large amounts of data;
  • Enthusiasm about promoting evidence-based solutions to entrenched systemic problems.

Primary Responsibilities:

  • Assist Appleseed Research Director in all aspects of Project JEFF implementation including:
    • Coordinating the exchange of information among Project JEFF’s many stakeholders;
    • Keeping partners informed on progress and developments;
    • Keeping funders informed on progress;
    • Tracking concerns and issues that could slow progress.
  • Outreach to multi-sector stakeholders across the county in order to:
    • Educate stakeholders as to implications and harm to economy, employment, and growth of region because of burdensome court debt;
    • Grow network of collaborators interested in addressing collateral consequences of court debt;
    • Identify new jurisdictions for our work;
    • Identify new strategies for addressing the harm of heavy court debt. 
  • Produce report on practices of selected municipal courts in the Jefferson County area
  • Organize occasional outreach events to promote the project 

Salary and Benefits: This position offers a competitive non-profit salary range of $40,000 – $48,000 depending on experience, along with a benefits package including health insurance, generous paid leave, and reimbursement of travel-related expenses. The position is grant funded for 2 years with the possibility of extended employment.

To Apply:  Send a cover letter, resume, writing sample, and three references to Alabama Appleseed’s Executive Director, Carla Crowder, at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis and accepted until the position is filled. Please write “Jefferson County Project Manager” in the subject line.

The injustices that we are fighting in Alabama today are directly connected to long histories of inequality and oppression in this state. As we build our team to fight for a better Alabama, we know that people who have historically been overlooked need to lead. For this reason, we welcome and strongly encourage applications from people of color, women, people with criminal histories, people from working class backgrounds, veterans and LGBTQ people.

Alabama Appleseed values an inclusive culture and diverse workforce. Alabama Appleseed encourages applications from all qualified individuals without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, national origin, marital status, citizenship, disability, and record of arrest or conviction.