Alabama’s high court fees are forcing low-level criminal offenders to give up necessities once they're out of jail to make ends meet — and in some cases even driving them to more crime — according to a survey conducted by a coalition of advocacy groups.
“We shouldn't force our courts to be debt collectors,” said Frank Knaack, a spokesman for the Montgomery-based Appleseed Center, which offers legal help to people in poverty. “They should be focused solely on the administration of justice.”
Appleseed and other groups, including Greater Birmingham Ministries and Legal Services Alabama, on Wednesday released the results of a survey of 980 people who'd had experience with court-related debt.
The groups found survey respondents through social service agencies in nine different cities — and offered each a $15 Wal-Mart gift card in exchange for answering questions. Eight hundred seventy-nine of the respondents were dealing with court fees from their own involvement with the court system; 101 hadn’t been arrested but had helped someone else pay off court fees.
Eight in 10 said they'd given up necessities like food, medical bills or child support payments in order to pay down their debt to the court. Forty-four percent said they'd taken out payday or title loans.
Thirty-eight percent said their court debt had driven them to commit crime. The most common crime was drug trafficking, followed by theft and sex work.
Knaack said the study also revealed a problem the researchers hadn't been expecting. A number of respondents said they'd been charged with failure to appear in court after missing court dates because they were already in jail.
Local court officials say the study paints an inaccurate picture of the way the state handles court fees, though they agree that the court fee system is a problem.
“Our court system is leveraged on the idea that people can pay the debt that they owe, but in a lot of cases, they can’t pay,” said Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh.
Alabama has long used fines and fees, levied against defendants, to fund parts of state government. The fine for a traffic violation is typically $20, but a ticket in Anniston will cost you $272 — the other $252 funds the DA's office, the state comptroller and eight other agencies. When Alabama provides an indigent defendant with a lawyer, it sends a bill later.
Defendants don't pay those fees until they complete their sentences, which means some felons may never pay. But misdemeanors can carry fines of up to $6,000, and many people convicted of crimes also have to pay restitution to their victims.
Appleseed argues that those fees put defendants in a financial hole they'll likely never get out of. Prosecutors say judges typically work out a payment plan for those who can't pay.
“It they can pay, they should pay,” said Barry Matson, director of the Office of Prosecution Services, a state agency that assists DAs. “If they can't, state law doesn't allow us to send someone to jail for being indigent.”
A more likely solution, Matson said, is a long-term payment plan that will have a defendant paying a small monthly fee, scaled to their income. Prosecutors say that's often frustrating for crime victims, who are sometimes awarded restitution by the courts.
"I have victims who are owed $100,000 and they're asking why it's getting paid back at $20 a week," McVeigh said.
Courts, prosecutors say, face essentially the same problem — getting sometimes poor yields from fees that are designed to prop up funding holes in the court system.
“The question is how else are you going to fund us?” McVeigh said.
Knaack said one answer to the issue is to fully fund courts through the state’s budget. Judges and other court officials have long complained of underfunded courts, though lawmakers often resort to court fees in lieu of raising taxes.
Knaack said the state should also do more to make the getting and spending of court fees transparent. He said Appleseed had trouble tracking where fees were collected and spent, partly because of the disjointed nature of the court system. Alabama in the 1970s created a Unified Judicial System that bound state and circuit courts together under a single agency, but city courts aren’t part of that system.
“Municipal courts are a black hole,” Knaack said.