August 3rd, 2012
A growing number of low-income Alabamians find themselves imprisoned after failing to pay misdemeanor fines, denying them rights provided by the U.S. Constitution. The matter recently even drew the attention of the New York Times.
“Alabama courts have turned justice on its head by handing poor people who can’t afford to pay a fine over to private probation companies, where even more fees are added to the already unaffordable debt,” said Lisa Borden, the pro bono partner at Birmingham’s Baker Donelson law firm.
For instance, one Alabamian’s $179 speeding ticket mushroomed into $1500 worth of fines. After this woman failed to pay the fines, the city jailed her on three occasions for a total of 40 days of jail time. Afterwards, she owed $3,170 to the private company.
Borden, who advocates on behalf of low-income clients, said, “Even those avoiding jail sentences can suffer dramatic consequences, losing jobs and homes as a result of suspended driver’s licenses and unjust arrest warrants.”
Recently, four Harpersville citizens, previously jailed, filed suit against the city. Shelby County Judge Harrington granted an injunction, accusing Harpersville of running a “debtor’s prison” and calling the city’s actions “disgraceful.”
These practices inflict many hidden costs on Alabamians, whose median household income is $40,538, or about $9,500 less than the national median.
According to a recent multi-state survey, citizens’ credit scores are severely impacted by these debt judgments, making it difficult for them to find housing and childcare. Further, Alabamians forced to serve jail time find it hard to rejoin the workforce, since many employers will not hire applicants with criminal records.
“Fortunately, the tide may be turning,” Borden says. “I am hopeful that more citizens become aware of the tragic and unconstitutional cruelties inflicted on poor Alabamians by these policies.”