Candidates for Birmingham DA debate marijuana prosecution, impact of fines and fees
A forum organized by Faith in Action on Oct. 16 laid out essential differences between the candidates running for district attorney of Jefferson County, which contains Birmingham. The candidates are Mike Anderton, a Republican who has served as DA since being appointed by Governor Kay Ivey in November 2017, and Danny Carr, a Democrat who served as interim DA for the 11 months prior.
You can watch the forum in its entirety here; in this post, I wish to highlight two areas.
First, they both professed support for diverting low-level drug offenses—but it became apparent that they understood different things by this. Rightly noting that “it is easy to say yes” to a question about diversion, Carr said that the real question is what exact categories are included, and whether the next DA would “broaden the types of cases that are eligible for diversion programs.” He added, “My answer to that is, it’s not just possession cases, I think some distribution cases should go to diversion programs.” Anderton offered a more restrictive answer, noting that when it comes to diversion even some cases of possession can be “too much.”
Carr has emphasized reforming marijuana policy during his campaign. “It’s hard to imagine that our limited resources should be devoted to jailing individuals for marijuana possession instead of focusing on serious violent crimes,” he tweeted in October. In a follow-up with WBRC, Carr specified that he would not dismiss these cases but rather seek fines instead of jail, and that he would be open to treating some marijuana possession like a traffic citation. In October, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report on disproportionate racial impact of marijuana enforcement. “Black people were approximately four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession,” according to the report.
Second, the candidates were asked whether they would oppose incarceration over a failure to pay fines and fees. “I would never, ever, ever recommend a person going to jail for not being able to pay their fines and fees, absolutely not,” Carr answered. (In answering a questionnaire prepared by the Justice Collaborative, which along with The Appeal is a fiscally sponsored project of Tides Advocacy, he committed to opposing not just incarceration but also driver license suspensions.) But Anderton offered a qualified answer, that he opposes incarceration “if someone’s trying” by making at least monthly payments of $5 to $10. “I’m not going to start running a debtors’ prison, I would never do that,” Anderton added.
But a report released by Greater Birmingham Ministries and Alabama Appleseed last month found that prison is a common experience for Alabamians in this situation. “Nearly half [of individuals surveyed] said they had been jailed for failure to pay court debt,” the report finds. “People who had been declared indigent in a court of law were far more likely than their non-indigent peers to have spent time behind bars for failure to come up with the money demanded of them.”
update (Nov. 11): Danny Carr won the Nov. 6 election against the incumbent, Mike Anderton.