Your Donation Will Be Doubled. Support Today!

High Cost Of Prison Diversion Programs Leaves ‘Too Many People’ Imprisoned in Alabama

A survey of roughly 1,000 people found that 1 in 5 had been turned down for a diversion program because they couldn’t afford the costs of drug tests and monitoring devices.

A guard escorts a prisoner at a maximum security prison in Alabama.Getty Images

Amber had 24 hours after her release from an Alabama prison to come up with $290 for the first monthly payment on her electronic monitoring device. After being sentenced to 15 years in prison for violating her probation for second-degree robbery, she had been given an opportunity to serve the majority of her sentence on the outside under the supervision of a community corrections program. But without the payment, she would be sent back to prison. 

She managed to pool together the money in time, but the fees didn’t stop there. In addition to the monitoring fee on the first Tuesday of each month, her drug test costs around $20 each week. Researchers who have studied her case say she owes the state roughly $5,500 in fees, fines, and restitution. And because she is considered a violent offender, her community corrections officer told her there are no resources to help with the payments. 

“With these fees and stuff it’s very stressful, coming out of prison and trying to redeem yourself,” Amber told researchers with the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. She asked that her last name not be used because she feared it would endanger her success in diversion. “It’s not like when you come out of prison you don’t have any responsibilities.”

Though diversion programs can keep people out of prison and jail, they often present challenges that make participating in them difficult. Amber’s story is not unique. She’s one of roughly 1,000 people who were surveyed by Alabama Appleseed and included in a new report on diversion programs throughout the state. 

It’s not uncommon for people to have to forego diversion programs because they can’t afford them. One in 5 people surveyed had been turned down for a spot and instead had to go to prison or jail for this reason, according to the report. Others were unable to get time off from work to attend check-ins and court appearances. Sometimes, the programs drove people to commit crimes so they could continue to participate. 

In Alabama, the issue has reached a critical moment. The U.S. Department of Justice has deemed the state’s prisons to be overcrowded, violent, and in violation of the Constitution. As part of a plan to improve conditions, a study group convened by Governor Kay Ivey last year targeted the expansion of diversion programs to ease overcrowding and help those battling addiction. According to Leah Nelson, research director for Alabama Appleseed, it’s vital that the state change its diversion programs so they can operate successfully. 

“I think the big picture from this is that diversion can help people, but the way we’re doing it in Alabama is not efficient,” she told The Appeal. “It leaves too many people out for structural reasons and also financial reasons.”

The state’s diversion programs fall into two categories: pre-adjudication and post-adjudication. In pre-adjudication programs, people accused of committing low-level crimes can avoid a criminal record by enrolling in drug court or meeting requirements such as checking in with a supervisor for drug tests or participating in rehabilitative programming. For post-adjudication, people who are convicted of a crime can serve their sentences outside prison by taking part in programs similar to those required in pre-adjudication. It’s difficult to know how many people are in diversion programs throughout the state because they are run by different entities from county to county.

Partaking in diversion comes with a cost. More than half of the people surveyed made less than $14,999 per year but were expected to pay a median of $1,600 to complete the program, according to the report. Despite the exorbitant cost, just 1 in 10 had been offered a waiver to either reduce or erase the costs. As a result, roughly 4 in 10 people committed a crime to pay for the costs of diversion, and 1 in 8 were fired from their jobs because of conflicts with court appearances, according to Alabama Appleseed.

Archie, who was profiled in the report, struggled with balancing his job and showing up for his regular court appearances. “You gotta choose between going to court, which you know if you don’t go to court then chances are you might go to jail,” he said in the report. “But you also need your job cause you got kids depending on you.” To keep up with his payments, he said he has stolen, sold drugs, and given up necessities such as food and utilities. 

Because diversion programs can vary by county, Nelson said there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to make them work better. It’s necessary that lawmakers restructure the programs so they are more convenient and uniform throughout Alabama. Now, people must report to the county in which they were arrested, which sometimes means hours-long drives multiple times a month. “I think we need to develop a complete understanding of who is in the programs and who they are intended to serve and who they are actually serving, and then structure them in a way that makes them a lot more accessible,” she said.

Additionally, Nelson said Alabama should re-examine its drug policy. Currently, possession of all controlled substances except marijuana is a Class D felony, a charge that’s punishable by at least a one-year prison sentence. 

Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, told The Appeal that making taxpayers foot the bill for diversion programs is another important step to ensuring people stay out of jail or prison. “There should not be fees for diversion programs,” she said. “The solution is to make sure anyone in a diversion program has access and therefore it needs to be free of charge because we as a society are also benefiting when somebody is going through diversion.”

For Amber, completing her program continues to be challenging. Though she participated in trade school in prison and has a license to operate a forklift, she has struggled to find a steady job because of her criminal record. So, she earns roughly $250 per week for work through a staffing agency. She uses that money to pay for her freedom and to help support her children, who she said are thrilled she’s back home. 

“I have children, I have family, I have a home that I would like to do Christmas for,” Amber said. “It’s hard to do any of those things when you have to pay all this money to this woman or I’ll definitely go back to prison.”