Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

How Alabama’s Fines and Fees System Preys On The Poor

Terrance has been jailed repeatedly over court debt for fishing to feed his family.

Terrance TruittAlabama Appleseed

Terrance Truitt is a self-described “all-around outdoorsman.” In and around Montgomery, Alabama, the father of two teens hunts deer and wild boar, and angles for fish. Sometimes fishing is a favorite pastime that ends in a fish fry with friends, and sometimes it’s a necessity to feed his family.

“I have to pay rent, and I have to feed myself, too. That’s part of the reason I go fishing,” said Truitt, who has at times been homeless. He doesn’t fish in public waterways, like rivers or lakes, because he doesn’t have a boat, a necessary asset for catching enough fish. Instead, to feed his family, he fishes at local ponds, which are typically privately owned, but without the required permit.

Foraging has sustained Truitt through hard times but also worsened his financial insecurity: He has been fined on at least three previous occasions for fishing in private ponds, a misdemeanor,  for which he has has racked up about $1,400 in court fines and fees.

Last month, Truitt spent eight days in jail, including his 39th birthday, for missing court appearances related to a 2017 fishing conviction. His absences were no accident; he was behind in paying a $25 monthly court debt fee and knew that showing up for hearings would most likely mean he would be thrown in jail. “When they catch me, they catch me,” he figured.

This was at least the ninth time Truitt went to jail for falling behind in paying his court debt, according to records provided by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Other court fines and fees stem from traffic violations and possession of marijuana.

“It always ends up costing me, it gets me off track,” he said of his stints in jail. “You hold a man … bills start to pile up. And they expect you to pay, I find that really difficult to deal with.”  

In Alabama, people convicted of minor crimes are frequently slapped with large court debts, regardless of their ability to pay, according to a recent report released by Alabama Appleseed. Researchers there interviewed 980 people from 41 Alabama counties who were in debt to a court.

Among respondents, the median amount owed to courts was $2,700, a formidable sum for anyone living paycheck to paycheck, and nearly 70 percent of payees had been declared indigent by the courts. Over 80 percent of respondents reported forgoing other bills, including rent, medical bills, car payments, child support and food, to stay on top of their court payments.

The average amount of time respondents had been in debt was about four and a half years. Over half of respondents reported that the amount they owed grew over time because of interest, collections fees, and other financial penalties; roughly the same percentage didn’t think they would ever be able to pay off what they owed.

The report revealed a cycle of poverty compounded by the criminal justice system. “Often the first is a [violation] that they wouldn’t have done if they weren’t living in poverty,” said Leah Nelson, a researcher at Alabama Appleseed. “Like driving without insurance or with an expired car tag or a nonworking seat belt.” Poor people often can’t afford to keep up with the payments and maintenance necessary to avoid such violations, Nelson said, and this can lead to a suspended license, leaving a person with the difficult choice of commuting to work illegally or quitting a job. To pay off their court debt and disentangle themselves from the criminal justice system, nearly 40 percent of respondents said they resorted to illicit activity, such as selling drugs, theft, or sex work. For example, 1 in 5 people whose debt originated with a broken tail light or speeding ticket ultimately committed more serious crimes, including felonies, to pay their debt.

Some of the revenue generated by court fines and fees goes toward running the courts, but mostly it functions like a state tax. In fiscal year 2017, Alabama’s Unified Judicial System took in about $14 million from court debt, whereas noncourt-related entities received over five times that amount, around $75 million. The bulk of that revenue, about $37 million, went straight to the state’s general fund. The struggling public education system received about $1.9 million of the fines and fees revenue, the police officer’s retirement fund took in over $1million, and the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources—the agency that ticketed Truitt for fishing without a permit—received over $800,000.

At the same time, state and local government collect fewer tax dollars from residents in Alabama than in any other state. Experts attribute this to a lower base of wealth in the state, but also to the state’s far-below-average tax rates. In a 2017 analysis, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama ranked the state 46th in the nation in tax collection as a percentage of total personal income earned by residents.

State lawmakers “would rather burden the poor, in Alabama particularly people of color, instead of raising taxes,” said Brock Boone, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama.

The legality of jailing those who can’t pay, like Truitt, is questionable. While Truitt was technically incarcerated for missing court appearances, practically speaking, he was in jail for his inability to make his court payments. Debtor’s prisons are illegal, yet Truitt was sent to jail on Oct. 8 on the condition that he be released, according to court documents, “upon payout of $500,” the total he owed for a 2017 fishing case, plus an additional $20 jail booking fee. It’s hard to imagine how someone who is in jail for missed payments would come up with that much money from behind bars. In Truitt’s case, RFK Human Rights paid for his release, but in the past, he said, he would have been jailed for a month. Boone, a former public defender, said that there isn’t a standard practice governing how long to keep a person in jail who can’t make their payout. Some judges will offer jailed persons a certain amount of credit toward payout–$25 per day in jail, for example. The Fifteenth Judicial Court of Alabama, where Truitt was tried, did not respond to a request for comment on how payout amounts were set, and how long a person would stay in jail if he or she was unable to pay.

Truitt is thankful that he was released, but he is still struggling to find financial stability. “I’m going to try to start working as much as I can,” he said. Of course, eight days in jail interrupted that plan and cost him his job at Costco. “It kind of puts bricks upon bricks on your life.”