The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld a ruling by a circuit court judge which struck down part of Alabama’s sex offender statute, the Community Notification Act (“CNA”). The appeals court concluded that the CNA unconstitutionally discriminates against the poor and punishes people solely for the status of being homeless, in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Court’s decision came in the case of an indigent prisoner who was required by the statute to provide corrections officials with an address that complied with the CNA’s strict residency requirements 45 days before he completed his sentence, or face new charges. The prison did not provide listings of rental homes or motels where he might be allowed to live, and prison rules forbid him from using the telephone or internet to find a home.
Without a home to go to and without money to pay for housing, his only option was to send out letters asking for a place to live in exchange for work. Because he was unable to locate housing before his prison sentence ended, as soon as he completed his seven-year prison term he was immediately re-arrested, placed in jail, and indicted for failure to comply with the CNA, which is a felony.
A Montgomery County trial judge dismissed the indictment and declared the CNA unconstitutional because it punishes people for being poor and unable to find housing. The State appealed. In ruling that the CNA violated the prisoner’s constitutional rights because it created consequences for poor people that do not apply to those with resources, the Court of Criminal Appeals noted that the “cycle of incarceration is potentially endless for the indigent homeless sex offender – and ultimately each would be incarcerated for life as habitual felony offenders.”
This situation is not uncommon in Alabama, where the State has been prosecuting the poor and homeless for failure to comply with the CNA since the law was amended in 2005. Compounding the challenges for poor people finding housing from prison is the fact that the CNA prohibits anyone classified as a sex offender from residing within 2000 feet of a school, daycare center, or college, a provision which remains in place.