Alabama Turning Poverty into Prison Sentences

Tags: Criminal Defense

Many people trust that when they are innocent, the justice system will bear that out. Even when they are guilty, they presume that, in the event of a conviction, the punishment will fit the crime.

But here is the sad fact that Birmingham criminal defense attorneys confront each day: The criminal justice system is not your friend. It is not designed to work in your favor. This is especially true when the defendant is someone surviving at or near the poverty line.

This truth was recently highlighted in an excellent article by “The Nation,” where writers for the national publication focused on the rampant injustice in the small town of Harpersville, just a 35-minute drive from Birmingham. While debtors’ prisons have become an obsolete form of punishment in the U.S., Harpersville has effected a revival of sorts. It’s a system that effectively keeps people indebted to the government for years with the threat of incarceration – even for relatively minor offenses.

The story starts with a single traffic stop. In 2007, a woman in her 50s was pulled over by police for a busted tail light. She didn’t have insurance. She didn’t have a license. It had been revoked years earlier after she had failed to pay a traffic ticket in a town nearby. Following a car accident a decade earlier, she wasn’t able to work and survived on less than $700 a month in disability payments. To pay the ticket would have meant not eating.

That single stop resulted in years of suffering and extensive jail time. Harpersville, like many other municipalities, contracts with a private service that works to collect court fines. The costs for these collection services are then passed on to those who often don’t have the money to pay the original fine in the first place.

In this case, the woman tried to pay, but months passed and she fell behind. The private firm sent her a letter, threatening that if she didn’t pay $150 immediately, she would go to jail. The letter was undeliverable. In fact, it was returned to the courthouse. She never saw it. But that didn’t stop the court from issuing a warrant for her arrest.

Two years later, she was arrested on that outstanding warrant. She was booked into jail and charged more than $30 a day for her stay. She was jailed for nearly two months. Now, her debt was in the thousands. She was eventually transferred to a work-release program. However, 40 percent of her earnings went to food and then the program administrators. What was left over wasn’t near enough to pay the remaining balance on her fines.

She concedes her guilt on the initial charge, but says it shouldn’t be this hard to right the wrong. We agree.

This case shows why it is so important to invest in an experienced attorney, even if it doesn’t seem to be in the budget. While no lawyer can guarantee you any result, the reality is that outcomes are often far worse without adequate legal representation. It’s worth noting that you are not entitled to a court-appointed (and paid-for) attorney on misdemeanor or traffic charges. But as this case reveals, experienced legal help is often truly necessary.

Harpersville is not alone in the way it handles these matters. Local governments across the country have budgets that are stretched thin. The costs of court fees and fines have increased. Many have passed so-called “pay-to-stay” initiatives that charge people a daily cost for their jail stay. Often, this occurs while they have not yet been convicted and are still presumed innocent!

In Harpersville, since the contract with the private collection firm, court revenue has become the second-largest source of income in the city, equaling three times the amount it collects in sales taxes.

The same company that contracts with Harpersville works in nearly 500 other cities in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, racking in some $14 million in annual revenue.

Technically, the Constitution specifically protects people from this kind of debt trap. Harken back to the 1983 case of Bearden v. Georgia, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jailing someone based on their failure to pay a fine without first verifying whether the person had the ability to do so was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. And yet, neither the private service in Harpersville or the court itself tries to determine whether a person is indigent before pressing them for payment.

We are committed to making sure your rights are protected.

If you are facing criminal charges in Alabama, contact Alabama Criminal Lawyers at (205) 994-0616 or use our online contact form.

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