Amanda Underwood won’t have to worry about being thrown in jail just because she doesn’t have money.
Underwood lives in Alexander City, Alabama, where a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in September claimed that anyone who couldn’t pay their court fines in full were arrested and jailed without anyone looking into whether they could actually afford to pay or an offer of an alternative plan. She has already been jailed twice for her inability to come up with the funds, both times missing one of her children’s birthdays. Another resident, D’Angelo Foster, said he experienced the same thing, losing his job while he spent 35 days in jail over owing $1,700.
But last month, in the wake of the lawsuit, the city passed an ordinance changing its policies. As written, it requires the municipal court to consider a person’s ability to pay when deciding what course of action to take with someone who doesn’t have the full funds. No one who is unable to pay will be jailed anymore; instead, the court can put someone like Underwood or Foster on a payment plan, give her community service, or reduce or cancel the debt she owes. Defendants will also no longer be charged an additional fee for being placed on a payment plan.
“Previously, the police department had been jailing all those who could not afford to pay without any consideration of their financial situation by the judge,” SPLC senior staff attorney Sara Zampierin told ThinkProgress in an email. “These changes abolish that practice and require the court to make the determinations required by the constitution.”
Time will tell what kind of effect the ordinance will actually have on the town, where nearly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. “Like any change in procedures, while it looks good on paper, the actual proof of reform will come through its implementation and practice,” Zampierin said. SPLC will also move ahead in its quest for damages for Underwood, Foster, and others who were jailed over the last two years because they couldn’t afford to pay their fines.
“We will be monitoring how these changes are being implemented in Alexander City to ensure that individuals’ constitutional rights are being respected, and the City will be reporting information to us so we can be sure the new procedures are being followed,” Zampierin said. “If they are not, further action can be anticipated. But our assumption is that the city will do what it says and comply with the Constitution.”
Debtors’ prisons, where people were jailed because they didn’t pay money they owed, were officially abolished in the 1800s. Previous Supreme Court cases in the 70s and 80s also held that jailing people who can’t afford to pay without assessing whether they’re able violates the Constitution, and SPLC has argued the practices unearthed in Alexander City violate the 14th Amendment.
Yet Alexander City is far from the only place where they have been uncovered. SPLC and another organization, Equal Justice Under the Law, also filed lawsuits in Montgomery, Alabama that alleged poor people who couldn’t pay their fines were jailed, but could pay off their debts faster by doing jobs like cleaning feces and blood off the floor. Those suits led the city to end the practice and reform its policies.
Equal Justice Under the Law has also filed lawsuits in a number of other cities: New Orleans, Louisiana; Ferguson and Jennings, Missouri; Jackson, Mississippi; and Rutherford County, Tennessee. In the latter, plaintiffs alleged they resorted turning over all of their government benefits, forgoing their rent payments and getting evicted, and selling blood plasma to comply with a private probation program. And the American Civil Liberties Union has sued Biloxi, Mississippi and Benton County, Washington over similar practices.