Poor People in Alabama Continue to be Jailed Because They Cannot Pay Fines
Historical marker at site of debtors prison in Virginia

It is illegal to jail people because they are too poor to pay a fine, but as local authorities and private probation companies face mounting pressure to generate revenue, growing numbers of poor people in Alabama are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions.

As the New York Times reported recently, the Alabama Legislature is pressuring the state's courts to produce revenue, which has led to increased fines and court costs attached to misdemeanors and violations, such as speeding tickets.

Courts have contracted out to for-profit, private companies like Georgia-based Judicial Correction Services to collect fines from people who are on probation for misdemeanor offenses. These companies make their money by adding fees onto the bills of the defendants, which can turn a $179 speeding ticket into a more than $3000 bill, much of it owed to the probation company.

Notwithstanding clear state and federal law, local authorities throughout Alabama are revoking probation and jailing people who are too poor to pay these fines and fees. EJI has challenged this practice in Birmingham, where the municipal court sentenced dozens of indigent people to be confined in the city jail for failure to pay fines.

A shocking number of these sentences imposed for minor misdemeanors exceeded the punishment for felony offenses. EJI obtained relief for one client who had been sentenced to 16 months in jail for four misdemeanors – disorderly conduct, loitering, criminal trespass and giving false information to a police officer – arising out of a single interaction with local police.

Jailing indigent people because they have no money to pay fines results in municipal court systems incurring incarceration costs that are disproportionate to the penological goals served by imprisoning misdemeanor offenders.

Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said courts were increasingly using fees “for such things as the retirement funds for various court officials, law enforcement functions such as police training and crime laboratories, victim assistance programs and even the court’s computer system.” He told the Times that, with the private companies seeking a profit, with courts in need of income and with the most vulnerable caught up in the system, “we end up balancing the budget on the backs of the poorest people in society.”