|Charles Anderson, of Winfield, AL (Connor Sheets, al.com)|
We have reported multiple times on Alabama judges who violate the law by conducting public court proceedings in secret. Now, we learn that some Alabama judges butcher the law by throwing people in jail for unpaid court debts.
How grossly unlawful is this? The answer: very. From a report at al.com, under the headline "‘How do you make them pay?’: Locked up in Alabama for debt":
Arresting people for failure to appear is a standard policing practice. But arresting them for failure to pay court-ordered fines, fees and restitution is far less common.
Holding people in jail over unpaid debts they don’t have the financial wherewithal to pay violates federal laws and constitutional protections against operating a debtors’ prison, according to Leah Nelson, who studies failure to pay cases in her role as research director at Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice.
“I really do see this as a human rights crisis,” said Nelson. “You’re destroying people’s lives; you’re taking them away from their families and from their jobs. You are completely destabilizing them to punish them for not having money that they don’t have. It’s like a donut hole. ... That’s what this system is. It doesn’t make sense.”
The problem is particularly acute in Marion County, as Winfield resident Charles Anderson can attest:
Charles Anderson sat on his mother’s covered porch in rural Winfield, Alabama, Wednesday afternoon, chain-smoking Chesterfield 100s and sipping sweet tea from a mason jar as rain poured down on her carefully tended garden.
Barely 24 hours earlier, Anderson was locked up with three other men in a six-by-ten-foot cell in the Marion County Jail. The Army veteran served 28 days in the aging north Alabama facility after he was arrested last month for an unpaid debt. He had failed to make monthly payments on fines and fees associated with three court cases dating back as far as 2003.
The only reason he was able to be there in his “sanctuary” among the budding lantanas, weigela and roses of Sharon is because Linda Jacobs, his 72-year-old mother, cashed her monthly Social Security check on July 3, went to the circuit clerk’s office in the county seat of Hamilton on Tuesday, and paid $1,000 toward his outstanding court-ordered debts of more than $2,500.
“I offered to pay $300, and they called and told the judge, and the judge said he had to pay $1,000 to get out,” Jacobs told AL.com. “They take away your freedom, they lock you up, and you pay or they keep you locked up. It’s not right.”
Several other people remain incarcerated in Marion County solely because they are poor and don’t have loved ones with the financial resources to buy their freedom.
One man has been locked up in the jail since March, when he was arrested at a Winfield Walmart on three counts of failure to pay. A court document states that he would be released from county custody immediately if he were to come up with the $2,819.70 of court-ordered debts he currently owes. Another man has been held in the jail since he was arrested in April for failure to pay. His writ of arrest states that he “may be released upon payment of court costs, fines and restitution of: $4,182.56.”
Is there any basis in the law for this kind of treatment? No:
In Marion County, the justice system repeatedly cycles low-income people in and out of jail for failing to pay debts.
“In my opinion, it’s debtors’ prison because I owe money and you’re gonna lock me up for it,” Anderson said. “How is this the United States, where we’re supposed to have more freedoms than anywhere else in the world, and we’re incarcerating people for not having money?”
One resident calls the actions of Marion County authorities "extortion":
In more than a dozen cases filed over the past year that were reviewed by AL.com, court records show that people sat for weeks or months in the Marion County Jail simply because they were too poor to buy their release.
Though some people are arrested for failure to pay, Marion County often relies on failure to appear charges to arrest people with unpaid debts before demanding payment for their release.
But court records show that many people never receive the letters informing them of the payment review hearings, and several people who were arrested in the county for failure to appear since August 2020 told AL.com they had no idea they were due in court.
Daniel Ables sat in the Marion County Jail for over four months without appearing before a judge or having his case heard. Asked about his case, Sheriff [Kevin] Williams said Ables is one of the unfortunate people who fall through the cracks and end up serving months behind bars because their families are unable to pay for their release.
At 8:23 a.m. on February 22, a Marion County deputy arrested the Hamilton 41-year-old on an outstanding warrant for failing to appear at a March 2020 hearing to work out a plan to pay down his court-ordered debts stemming from a 2009 drug case.
As in many such cases in Marion County, the warrant for Ables’s arrest has two boxes checked. The first states that “[y]ou may release the accused person without taking the accused person before a judge or magistrate,” and the second, selected from three options below the first, says “[i]f the person posts a cash bond in the amount of $1915.60 with the court clerk.”
The “bond” in these cases is not a bond in the usual sense of an amount that a court orders incarcerated people to pay to ensure their return for a future court date. Instead, it’s equal to the exact total of all the fines, fees and restitution a defendant owes at the time.
During a . . . jailhouse phone call with AL.com, Ables said that he believed he would not have been locked up for months if he were wealthy, and that his life had been destroyed by this latest period of incarceration.
“It’s extortion. That’s pretty much what it is, is it not?” he said. “They’re gonna lock me up and hold me here for a year or some crap just because I can’t pay? What would you call it?”
Ables’s loved ones tried for months to raise the money the county had demanded for his release. Shortly after his arrest, his girlfriend offered to pay $700 toward his court-ordered debts but was told he could not be released for any amount short of $2,000.
At least one official seems to realize Marion County is acting outside the law:
Marion County Sheriff Kevin Williams sat down for an interview with AL.com . . . in his office in the one-story building in Hamilton that houses the county jail. He said that though he doesn’t write the laws, he is charged with enforcing them, and that sometimes means holding people on unpaid debts in accordance with judges’ orders.
“If you’re sitting here and you can’t pay your fines, but you’re court-ordered to pay them, how do you fix that? How do you make them pay?” he said from behind his paper-strewn wooden desk. “That’s where I’m torn. I don’t know how to fix it. Do we keep incarcerating individuals who can’t pay who might be classified as indigent? We know we can’t do that. But they still have an obligation to pay the fines.”
An Alabama attorney says the solution is not all that difficult. You simply do not incarcerate people for failure to pay a debt. It's against the law, and the al.com story presents no one who disputes that:
Cody Cutting, an attorney and fellow at the Southern Center for Human Rights who litigates cases related to the criminalization of poverty in the South, said that no matter what justification officials in Marion County may offer, the situation faced by people like Anderson is unacceptable.
“If someone who is arrested can avoid incarceration by paying if they’re able to pay their entire court debt, but someone who is unable to pay that court debt through no fault of their own is forced to languish in jail for months, that violates the Constitution,” he said. . . .
In America, jailing people for unpaid debts has long been against federal law in most instances.
The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the practice in a landmark 1983 ruling called Bearden v. Georgia, which held that courts may only sentence a person to prison for unpaid debts if the person “willfully” refuses to make payments toward the amount they owe. But the Supreme Court did not adequately define what “willfully” means, Cutting said, and over the ensuing decades judges in states including Alabama have continued to jail people for failure to pay without considering their financial status or other reasons for nonpayment.
Yet legal advocacy organizations like the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center have found repeatedly that judges in Alabama and many other states often jail people for failure to pay without conducting inquiries into their ability to make payments.
“It could not be clearer that it is unconstitutional to jail someone for failing to pay a fine if the ability to pay that fine is beyond that person’s control,” Cutting said. “In spite of how clear that constitutional command is, it’s completely apparent that jailing people for being poor is common practice in courts across the South.”
What about other examples of Alabama judges causing major hardship by ignoring black-letter law? We will address at least one in an upcoming post -- and it hits very close to home.