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Leah Nelson: Changes needed on funding for courts, law enforcement

By LEAH NELSON, Research Director, Alabama Appleseed 

Leah Nelson

In a remarkable story published in the Montgomery Advertiser, Alabama prosecutors worried that they would soon run out of funding to cover payroll. This emergency came not because lawmakers have changed their priorities and decided to defund district attorneys, but because collections on fines and fees, a major source of income for prosecutors, courts and the state, have fallen drastically in the wake of layoffs, closures, and the economic contraction caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Fines, fees, and court costs have long served as a hidden tax on Alabamians involved with the criminal legal system or who get the occasional traffic ticket. And they fund far more than just district attorneys or even just the administration of justice. Alabama relies on fines and fees to fill the state’s General Fund, finance government agencies, support county and municipal funds, and pay for local community programs. 

In good times, money flows from defendants through the court system and into other state agencies through a variety of mechanisms. It comes from fines, fees, and court costs assessed against people charged with minor traffic violations, misdemeanors, and felonies. This system places the burden of funding the state on those who can least afford it, and perversely recasts courts and prosecutors as revenue collectors who impose and collect the debt that finances their daily activities and supplements the state’s perennially underfilled coffers.

Barry Matson, Executive Director of the Office of Prosecution Services, described fines and fees as “taxes on the people in the system” and noted that unemployment and economic hardship driven by the COVID-19 pandemic mean that people simply don’t have the money to pay what they owe.

Matson is right. The fact is that even in good times, this hidden tax imposes an unconscionable burden on Alabamians involved in the legal system. In 2018, Alabama Appleseed surveyed nearly 900 Alabamians who owe fines and fees. The report found that to keep up with their payments, more than eight in ten of them had given up a necessity like food, utilities, or medication; more than four in ten had taken out a payday loan; and nearly four in ten have admitted to committing a crime to cover their payments. People whose only convictions consisted of traffic violations were in some ways in worse shape than people with felony convictions. Among other things, individuals with traffic citations were more likely to have been jailed for non-payment and more likely to have given up a basic need in order to pay off the state.

The burden of these payments, Appleseed’s research found, falls disproportionately on African Americans Alabamians. This is partly because African Americans are more likely than white people to be pulled over while driving and partly because they are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for offenses like marijuana and drug possession that, according to longstanding independent research, both races commit at roughly the same rate. 

Courts and prosecutors get a cut of the money collected from fines and fees, but they don’t keep all of it. In fiscal year 2017, Alabama’s Unified Judicial System received about $14.2 million from fines, fees, and court costs, while non-court entities were awarded over $75.2 million in disbursements, according to the Alabama State Bar. The largest slice of money – more than $36.5 million – went to the state General Fund. District attorneys received the third-largest slice after the General Fund and courts, a total of more than $13.8 million. 

With collections down a reported 30% in the past five weeks as compared with the same time period in 2019, disbursements to DAs – and every other fund or program that relies on fines and fees – will likely be significantly lower this year. The pandemic, Tuscaloosa District Attorney Hays Webb told Alabama Daily News, “is highlighting flaws in the existing funding model.” 

“When we rely on collections from largely indigent individuals,” Webb said, “it’s not a model for success.”

Webb and his fellow district attorneys are right. Even in good times, fines, fees, and other forms of court debt are an unreliable and inhumane source of income. In bad times, this system is untenable. 

Prosecutors and courts should be adequately funded – and so must the state General Fund. Given precarious finances and barriers to employment that exist for many justice-involved people at the best of times, we must assume that the funding gap caused by unpaid fines and fees will remain as individuals and families continue to grapple with the pandemic’s collateral economic damage.

It’s time to consider a new system, one that does not rely on the poorest Alabamians, and disproportionately on people of color, to fund basic state functions. 

Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to work to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians.

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