A judge in Marion, Alabama, told people who owed fines or fees that if they could not afford to pay and did not want to go to jail, they could give blood in exchange for a credit against what they owed the court.
Defendants in more than 500 criminal cases, including hunting after dark, assault, drug possession and passing bad checks, were summoned to court on September 17 for a “pay docket” – a hearing on unpaid fines, fees, court costs, and restitution. In a recording released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Perry County Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins told the dozens of people who appeared in court that day: “[I]f you do not have any money and don’t want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring your receipt back, or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money.”
The judge said to consider the option of giving blood “a discount rather than putting you in jail.” While he told defendants they would receive a $100 credit toward their fines if they produced a receipt showing they had given a pint of blood, no one who donated blood actually received a credit, according to SPLC; they merely avoided being jailed that day.
It is unconstitutional to jail people because they are too poor to pay fines or fees, but in Alabama and throughout the country, courts and private probation companies threaten indigent people with jail and lock them up in order to collect payments. As is often the case, Judge Wiggins did not assess whether the defendants could afford to pay, nor did the defendants have legal representation. In fact, according to a judicial ethics complaint filed by SPLC, the clerk’s office told one defendant that he did not need a lawyer.
In Perry County, one older man fainted after his blood was taken, the New York Times reported, and another man said he had offered to pay as much as he could but was told he had to give blood anyway. “I normally do [give blood],” a donor tells a blood bank staffer in an audio recording obtained by the SPLC. “But I don’t like being told I have to or I’m going to jail.”
Jill Evans, a vice president for LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, which ran the blood drive, said the company “prohibits blood donations from being considered as community service because it is potentially an unacceptable incentive for a volunteer donor.” LifeSouth eventually discarded nearly all of the blood units collected outside the courthouse that day.