Alabama Takes From the Poor and Gives to the Rich

The following excerpts were reprinted from The New York Times. Read the the full article. This article It uplifts the stories of Plaintiff in the case McCullough v. City of Montgomery Marquita Johnson and others in Alabama persecuted by debt in a broken system.

In states like Alabama, almost every interaction a person has with the criminal justice system comes with a financial cost. If you’re assigned to a pretrial program to reduce your sentence, each class attended incurs a fee. If you’re on probation, you’ll pay a fee to take your mandatory urine test. If you appear in drug court, you will face more fees, sometimes dozens of times a year. Often, you don’t even have to break the law; you’ll pay fees to pull a public record or apply for a permit. For poor people, this system is a trap, sucking them into a cycle of sometimes unpayable debt that constrains their lives and almost guarantees financial hardship.

While almost every state in the country, both red and blue, levies fines and fees that fall disproportionately on the bottom rung of the income ladder, the situation in Alabama is far more dramatic, thanks to the peculiarities of its Constitution. Over a century ago, wealthy landowners and businessmen rewrote the Constitution to cap taxes permanently. As a result, today, Alabama has one of the cruelest tax systems in the country.

Alabama wants totalitarianism, but they just don’t want to pay for it.

-Leah Nelson of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

As I traveled through Alabama in April, I asked almost everyone I met — gas station attendants, Starbucks baristas and grocery store clerks of all races — if they knew anyone who had been affected by court fines and fees. Many told me stories of family and friends who had. Some had themselves.

Lane Norris told me she left prison after serving 14 years (nine of them in solitary), only to be hauled before a judge five times for fines and fees she accrued during her incarceration. A legal service found that the state had mistakenly charged her more than $20,000 in fees for, among other things, crimes she did not commit. Many of those fines were later erased, but she doesn’t believe she’ll ever pay off her remaining balance.

Marquita Johnson fell behind on her court debt and spent 10 months in jail. Martez Files, who lives outside the Black Belt, has a degree from Brown University and a new tenure-track job at the University of Pittsburgh, and yet he said he cannot crawl out from under the debt resulting from a series of tickets he got in Alabama. Teon Smith told me about how police ticketed her multiple times in a county just north of Montgomery on her way to work at a casino. It got so bad, she quit the job and moved to Montgomery. She always taught her six children to do the right thing, to follow the law, but even in Montgomery she couldn’t seem to avoid or pay off her tickets. (She has since paid off the debt incurred from them.)

Niaya Williams, a mother of three, received a series of tickets for traffic infractions, ended up with a mountain of debt and, because she missed her court dates, spent roughly three weeks in jail. In much of Alabama, wherever you see working people, you’re bound to find a story like hers.

Mrs. Williams and millions of others in the state live in the wreckage of a system starved of funding: The state has chronically underfunded schools, bad public transit, a dearth of well-paying jobs, little affordable child care and a diminishing health care system. During the 20th century, some public schools began asking students for recommended donations, or what might amount to tuition. They also asked parents to donate books, toilet paper and other supplies. Many school districts had no school buses. Most places have a simple and effective method for quickly ameliorating these problems: They raise property or income taxes. But Alabama often refuses to do so or makes it exceptionally difficult, dooming many to living standards unthinkable for a country as rich as the United States.