Imprisonment Because People Are Too Poor?


David Wayne Acra was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment because he was too poor to obtain a place to live upon his release from custody – a practice the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in another case later struck down as unconstitutional. On September 28, 2012, the Court of Criminal Appeals sent Mr. Acra’s case back to the trial court for a hearing where he can show that later decision entitles him to relief.

Alabama’s Community Notification Act requires people convicted of sex offenses to provide “the actual address at which he or she will reside or live upon release” to the Alabama Department of Corrections at least 45 days before his release from custody.

In January 2009, Mr. Acra was scheduled to be released from prison. While in prison, he lost all connection with his family and lost his home, and was not allowed to work at any gainful employment or in a work release program. As a result, Mr. Acra simply had no address to provide, he had no money to find even temporary housing, and every shelter, re-entry program, or halfway house he wrote to find shelter did not accept people with sex offense convictions or charged a deposit.

Because Mr. Acra was unable to provide a post-release address, Barbour County authorities charged him with a felony and he was sentenced to 15 years. Even though he’d served his sentence, the new charge meant he never left prison.

Less than two years later, in a separate case, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals struck down the law under which Mr. Acra was convicted, finding it was unconstitutional as applied to indigent, homeless people. The Alabama Legislature then changed the law so that indigent, homeless people are not subject to criminal charges for being unable to provide an address.

Mr. Acra filed a petition asking the trial court to find that, because he was indigent and homeless, his conviction should be vacated, but the court dismissed his petition without a hearing.

EJI attorneys appealed, arguing that Mr. Acra’s petition pleaded facts which, if proved at an evidentiary hearing, entitle him to relief and that Adams‘s holding forbidding authorities from punishing people for being homeless and poor applies retroactively to Mr. Acra.

On September 28, 2012, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, concluding thatAdams applies retroactively and sending Mr. Acra’s case back to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing.