Court Fees and Fines Are Hurting Low-Income Families in Alabama

Posted October 20, 2018
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Court fees in Alabama are hurting low-income people

Alabama’s court sys­tem, like many oth­ers across the coun­try, impos­es fines, fees and resti­tu­tion in ways that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact low-income peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly peo­ple of col­or. Those who can’t afford to pay often are hit with addi­tion­al fees, trap­ping them in a vicious cycle of debt that under­mines their finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty, accord­ing to a new Casey-fund­ed report.

Under Pres­sure: How Fines and Fees Hurt Peo­ple, Under­mine Pub­lic Safe­ty and Dri­ve Alabama’s Racial Wealth Divide exam­ines the dam­ag­ing toll the state’s fee-for-prof­it struc­ture takes, and the sac­ri­fices Alabami­ans must make to pay down their court debt. Its authors — Alaba­ma Apple­seed Cen­ter for Law and Jus­tice, Greater Birm­ing­ham Min­istries, Legal Ser­vices Alaba­ma and Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma at Birm­ing­ham — are part of the Foundation’s South­ern Part­ner­ship to Reduce Debt (SPRD), a sev­en-state project launched in 2017 to con­front the racial-eth­nic wealth gap.

The report draws on sur­vey respons­es from near­ly 900 Alabami­ans who were pay­ing court debt for their own offens­es, which ranged from traf­fic vio­la­tions to felonies, and sev­er­al oth­ers who did not owe court debt them­selves but were pay­ing for loved ones.

Of those who were pay­ing their own debts, the report finds that:

  • 83% gave up neces­si­ties like rent, food, med­ical bills, car pay­ments and child sup­port to pay court fees and fines;
  • almost 40% admit­ted that they had stolen, sold drugs, engaged in sex work or com­mit­ted oth­er unlaw­ful acts to stay cur­rent on their debt;
  • 44% used high-inter­est pay­day or title loans to cov­er court debt; and
  • 50% said they had been jailed for fail­ure to pay court debt.

A com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors — includ­ing high pover­ty, income inequal­i­ty, racial seg­re­ga­tion and poor­er edu­ca­tion­al out­comes — make Alaba­ma and the sur­round­ing region the worst in the nation when it comes to eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty and a hotbed for house­hold debt.

These poli­cies and prac­tices in Alaba­ma and many oth­er South­ern states hold peo­ple back, keep folks in the red and stunt eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment for fam­i­lies and the region,” says Don Bay­lor, Jr., a senior asso­ciate at the Casey Foun­da­tion. That’s why we estab­lished SPRD, and we’re grate­ful for the work Alaba­ma Apple­seed and oth­ers are doing to uncov­er and reduce indebt­ed­ness across mul­ti­ple sys­tems, includ­ing judi­cial fines and fees, med­ical debt and high-cost con­sumer loans.”

The report calls for a range of state and local pol­i­cy and reg­u­la­to­ry changes that would help reduce the finan­cial bur­den court fines exact on those who can least afford them.

These include:

  • Elim­i­nat­ing court costs and fees and scal­ing fines to each person’s abil­i­ty to pay.
  • Cre­at­ing greater trans­paren­cy about court-assessed fees and their impact on peo­ple involved in the jus­tice system.
  • Pro­hibit­ing the sus­pen­sion of dri­vers’ licens­es unless the sus­pen­sion is nec­es­sary for pub­lic safe­ty and direct­ly con­nect­ed to a dri­ving offense.
  • Ful­ly fund­ing courts and dis­trict attorney’s offices from Alabama’s state bud­get to reduce local reliance on fines and fees.
  • Ensur­ing that jus­tice-involved indi­vid­u­als have access to coun­sel through­out the post-con­vic­tion peri­od dur­ing which they con­tin­ue to owe court debt.

As a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, Alaba­ma should not fund its state gov­ern­ment on the backs of poor peo­ple whose abil­i­ty to obtain gain­ful employ­ment is severe­ly ham­pered by the con­se­quences of hav­ing crim­i­nal records,” the report’s authors con­clude. As a mat­ter of con­science, we should not tol­er­ate a sys­tem that forces peo­ple to choose between pay­ing for basic neces­si­ties like food and med­i­cine and pay­ing their court debt.”

Read more about the South­ern Part­ner­ship to Reduce Debt

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